DVORAK: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 8 (Gunter Appenheimer/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Stephen Gunzenhauser/ Teije van Geest) (Naxos: 8.550269)
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Symphony No.4 in D Minor, Opus 13
Symphony No.8 in G Major, Opus 33
Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841 , theson of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia,some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he shou/d follow the example of hisfather and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at theage of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musicalabilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice,where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German and improving hisknowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in thevillage band and church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town innorthern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ school, from which hegraduated two years later.
In the years that followed, Dvorakearned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak whichwas to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Fouryears later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride were performed. It was not until1871 that Dvorak resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition,as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married andearly in 1874 became organist of the church of St. Adalbert. During this period hecontinued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositionsthat gradually become known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came in 1875 withthe award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included thecritic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms. The following year Dvorak failed to win the award, butwas successful in 1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslickand Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish topublish the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. Thesecompositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany and to England, wherehe was always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at thattime have won in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him anunassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvorak became professorof composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited tobecome director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it washoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musicalresults of Dvorak's time in America are well known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony,From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenousAmerican Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet
and a charming sonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he returned home to his work at thePrague conservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and beforethe end of the century two more operas to add to the nine he had already composed. He diedin Prague in 1904.
Dvorak's nine symphonies span aperiod of nearly thirty years. The first two were written in 1865, and the last in 1893.
Both the numbering of the symphonies and the opus numbers assigned to them have causedsome confusion. The first four symphonies were originally omitted from the list, so thatthe last five were numbered, although not in order of composition, the basis of the moreusual numbering today. Opus numbers were also manipulated to some extent, a simplesubterfuge to outwit Simrock by allocating earlier opus numbers to new compositions, onwhich he would otherwise have had an option.
The FourthSymphony was written in the first three months of 1874, some six months afterthe Third. It was first performed in Prague in 1892 and not published until 1912. Dvorakreturns here to the traditional four movements and begins to turn away from the influenceof Wagner, felt at its strongest in the preceding symphony. The work is scored for theusual pairs of woodwind instruments, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani,triangle, harp and strings, with triangle, cymbals and bass drum added in the thirdmovement.
The symphony opens impressively, asignal call appearing above the strings from clarinets and bassoons. Structurally thefirst movement is unusual in its abbreviated recapitulation to which a further developmentof earlier thematic material is added. The slow movement is introduced solemnly byclarinets and bassoons, with horns and trombones, in music that recalls Wagner and seemsat moments in the following variations about to turn into something well enough known bythat composer, to be saved at the last minute by some characteristically Bohemian turn ofphrase. The mood is shattered by the opening of the scherzo, thematically Bohemian, evenif the trio brings memories of Wagner. The last movement is based on its brief openingtheme, to be heard all too often as the movement proceeds to its necessary D majorconclusion.
In 1884 Dvorak bought a smallproperty at Vysoka and it was there that in the autumn of 1889 he w rote his Eighth Symphony, celebrating in the superscription tothe score his admission as a member of the Emperor Franz Josef's Czech Academy of Science,Literature and the Arts. The first performance was in Prague in February 1890, followed bya performance in London under the composer's direction in April and in June in Cambridge,where he received an honorary doctorate. The symphony was published in London by Novello,strong supporters of Dvorak, whose Vienna publisher Simrock had proved keener to buyshorter pieces, for which there was always a ready market. A performance under Richter inVienna had to wait until January 1891.
The symphony, scored for an orchestrathat includes piccolo, cor anglais and tuba, in addition to the pairs of other woodwindinstruments, four horns, trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani and strings, isimbued with the spirit of Bohemia. The first movement opens with a fine G minor theme,scored for cellos, clarinets, bassoon and horn, followed by a cheerful interruption fromthe flute and a rhythmic additional theme played by divided violas and cellos. There isthroughout the movement a mood that changes from major to minor, the former eventuallypredominating in a cheerful closing section.
The slow movement brings a similarambivalence, the three fiats of the opening key signature apparently an afterthought formusic which is now in E fiat major, before reaching C minor, contradicted by the woodwind.
The key signature is replaced before long by a happy C major melody for flute and oboe.
The third movement is in the form of a graceful G minor waltz, with a contrasting G major trio section fromDvorak's opera The Stubborn Lovers. Thetrumpets introduce the finale, their strong opening bars followed by a gently liltingcello theme, the subject of a series of variations, interrupted by a sinister soldiery.
There is are turn to the lyrical principal theme of the movement before the excitement ofthe closing section, as the orchestra is urged on by the French horns at their brassiest.
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