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symphony no. 6

COMPOSED 27 August - 15 October 1880
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE 25 March 1881, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) "Filharmonie" Orchestra, conductor Adolf Cech
FIRST EDITION Simrock, 1881, Berlin
MAIN KEY D major
INSTRUMENTATION 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets,
3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
1. Allegro non tanto
2. Adagio
3. Scherzo (Furiant)
4. Finale. Allegro con spirito
DURATION approx. 43 min.

general characteristics

The Symphony in D major, which appeared within a mere seven weeks in late summer and autumn 1880, is the sixth of Dvorak’s nine symphonies. However, for a long time it was regarded as the “First”, since it was Dvorak’s first work of this genre to come out in print (with the Berlin-based publisher Simrock). Even though it is somewhat overshadowed on the concert platform by the composer’s last three symphonic masterpieces, in reality, this symphony, too, represents one of a series of Dvorak’s magnum opuses in the symphonic genre. In the context of the development of the composer’s symphonic style, this undertaking indicated that he was entirely confident in his approach to the four-movement composition, a form he had now mastered. While the previous Symphony in F major still betrayed a certain lack of stylistic cohesion, here Dvorak had finally achieved a flawless style throughout. The work is distinguished for its rich, lyrical melodies, great diversity, lively rhythms and also for its full, colourful orchestral sound. The symphony is the consummate result of the influence of classical forms combined with what was now a crystallised, distinctive compositional style.

sketch for the symphony

composition history and sources of inspiration

The mood of the entire symphony is warm and tranquil and it portrays the composer in his most characteristic guise. With its inspiration from Czech folk music and its stylisation of the furiant – a fiery folk dance – in the third movement, it is considered a major representative of the composer’s so-called Slavic period. The symphony is sometimes given the nickname “Czech”, and conductor Vaclav Talich liked to call it the “Christmas” symphony, perhaps a reference to the lyricism of the slow movement. Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, written three years earlier, is often cited as a major source of inspiration: the outer movements of both symphonies share not only their key, metre, tempo markings and orchestration, but also their overall mood. One can presuppose, however, that the positive atmosphere of the work is a reflection of Dvorak’s situation in life at that time: now almost forty, after many years of endeavour, the composer had managed to break out onto the Czech and international concert scene (Slavonic Dances in London, the third Slavonic Rhapsody in Berlin, among others), he had cemented his friendship with Johannes Brahms (Brahms had even paid the Dvoraks a visit in Prague not long before this), and his wife had given birth to their daughter Anna. In addition, important musical institutions had begun commissioning works from him. This was also the case of Symphony in D major, which Dvorak wrote at the request of Chief Conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Richter, one of the principal promoters of Dvorak’s works on the international scene.

score of the 1st movement

formal structure and content

The first movement, whose introductory bars transport the listener straight to a bright and sunny summer’s day, is conceived in sonata form (Dvorak himself rejected the original repetition of the exposition when he wrote the note “Once and for all: no repetition” into the score which was used for the Prague performance of the symphony). The second, slow movement is a wonderful nocturne which, according to the composer’s biographer Otakar Sourek, “sings of the magic of a summer’s night”. This is a form of free rondo (A-B-A-C-A-B-A), whose main subject is a broad, lyrical cantilena melody enhanced with Dvorak’s typical warmth of expression. The Scherzo movement, a stylisation of the furiant, a Czech folk dance, and one of the composer’s most original symphonic movements, literally thrills the listener with its heady swirl of wild rhythms. This only subsides in the middle, highly contrasting section, and we find ourselves recalling for a moment the atmosphere of the previous movement. The fourth movement in sonata form, with its spectacular build-up in the coda, rounds off the whole work with a joyful sense of happiness and contentment.

premiere and reception

As soon as the composer had finished the work, he informed Simrock, his publisher: “My dear Mr Simrock! In brief I would like to inform you that I have written my new symphony and have completed its instrumentation. I will probably travel to Vienna next week, where the Philharmonic will try it out. I have made great efforts to produce this, a work capable of great things, and it has also given me much pleasure.” When Dvorak played the symphony (on the piano) in Vienna to Hans Richter, the famous conductor was delighted, a fact the composer immediately conveyed to his friend, Alois Gobl. “Dear friend! I am in Vienna, where I have heard so many wonderful things that I couldn’t even begin to describe them to you on paper. Richter loved the symphony, so much so that he gave me a kiss after every movement; it will be performed for the first time on 26 December, and then it will go to London!”. However, in the end, the Vienna premiere never took place. Evidently the Vienna Philharmonic itself rejected the idea; its players were together involved in concert programming and they were reluctant to perform works by a relatively “new” Czech composer over two successive seasons (they had performed Dvorak’s third Slavonic Rhapsody the previous season). In fact, it wasn’t until the year 1942 that the Vienna Philharmonic finally performed Dvorak’s sixth symphony for the first time. The work was premiered in Prague on 25 March 1881 under conductor Adolf Cech. It was extremely well received and the orchestra ended up having to repeat the third movement. Hans Richter conducted the symphony the following season at one of the Philharmonic Society concerts in London. While he was still rehearsing the work, he wrote to Dvorak: “This morning we had our first rehearsal for your wonderful work. I am proud to have received this dedication. The orchestra is truly delighted. The performance is on Monday 15th at eight in the evening. I am certain it will be a great success. But it has also been rehearsed with love nonetheless...”

The symphony soon began appearing on concert programmes in a number of European cities. During the first two years after its Prague premiere it was performed in Leipzig, Rostock, Dresden, Cologne, Frankfurt, Vratislav, Vienna and Budapest, among others. The year 1883 also saw its premiere on the American continent, a performance in New York credited to conductor Theodor Thomas. The Symphony in D major was thus one of the first works to earn Dvorak true recognition, works which established him on the international stage as one of the leading composers of his day.