By the time Antonin Dvorak felt ready to start his 6th Symphony, the land we know today as the Czech Republic was not yet officially a nation. The seeds that led to the country’s independence were planted few months after the symphony was premiered. Dvorak himself was a key figure in finding a cultural identity for the blooming country. In fact, for many reasons the D major Symphony working was precisely the catalyst that placed him in the international scene.
For a long time, even well into the 20th century, this Opus 60 was considered his “First”, for it was the first one of the genre to be published by an established publisher in Germany. To be published by a German firm a seal of acceptance that soon followed into many commissions and plenty of performances across the globe. This symphony represents the moment when Dvorak acquires the craft and recognition as a master composer. If you can find a certain lack of stylistic cohesion, “the sixth” offers a flawless style throughout. The work is distinguished for its rich, lyrical melodies, great diversity, and lively rhythms and also for its full, colorful orchestral sound. All characteristics that will become staple in the later creations of the author.
During a lecture at Prague Conservatory in a later date, Dvorak affirmed:
“To have a wonderful idea is nothing special. The idea comes of its own accord and, if it’s fine and great, man cannot take the credit for it. But to take a fine idea and make something great of it, THAT is the hardest thing to do; that is what real art is!”
It seems that in order to make something great out of his budding ideas, Dvorak turn his eyes to an established master for mentorship. It is not a coincidence that the premiere of the piece solidified a deep and intimate friendship with Johannes Brahms, one of the two titans in the German music of the late 19th century. If you were able to copy Dvorak’s symphony on a glass and place it in top of Brahms’s score, you would immediately notice that both follow similar patterns of structure and emotional search. It is evident that the Czech used as a model the work his admired master.
The “coincidences” are many to be ignored:
Premiered by H. RichterMovements:
Allegro non troppo
Adagio non troppo
Allegro con spirit
Premiered by H. Richter (almost!)Movements:
Allegro non tanto
Finale. Allegro con spirito
The first movement opens with such positive aura establishing the harmony that supports both symphonies, D major:
The adagio in both pieces serves as the moment of serenity and reflection, the one with a downward step motion, the other quickly building upwards:
The place that traditionally is reserved for the dance (a Minuet in the time of Haydn and Mozart) is used in t h e same guise by Brahms, but not by Dvorak. In the master we find a gentle movement, in contrast with the peasant-like furiant of thee apprentice. This furiant is the first symphonic example of Dvorak’s use of such local inspiration:
The last movement in both symphonies opens with similar quarter-note-driven counterpoint answered by the flute and the woodwind choir. The cadencial progression is similar and so is the length and architecture of the opening phrase:
Both pieces are written in the same key, they share similar titles and intentions for each movement. Brahms’ was premiered by Hans Richter in Vienna, and this was almost the case of Symphony in D major, which Dvorak wrote at the request of Chief Conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the principal promoters of Dvorak’s works on the international scene. The work we are discussing is dedicated to him, but the performance fell through due to programming issues that year.
“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!”
From a letter by the composer to his friend, Alois Gobl.
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.
The role of Brahms and his editor Simrok in the subsequent career of the Czech composer is undeniable, but we shouldn’t miss such a wonderful opportunity to see first hand the connections between works that ultimately complete our conception of music. Each of them adds a new color (some of them much more, of course!) to a well knit fabric that has needed few centuries to develop.