DVORAK: Symphony No. 1 / Legends Op. 59, Nos. 1-5 (Martin Sauer/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Stephen Gunzenhauser) (Naxos: 8.550266)
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Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)
Symphony No.1 in C Minor (The Bells of Zlonice)
Legends Op. 59, Nos. 1 -5
Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841, the son of a butcher andinnkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, and some forty milesnorth of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of his father andgrandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age ofeleven. 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, Dvorak earned his living as aviola-player in a " band under the direction of Karel Komzak which was to form thenucleus of i the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years laterSmetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It wasnot until 1871 that Dvorak resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time tocomposition, as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years laterhe married and early in 1874 became organist of the church of St. Adalbert. During thisperiod he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series ofcompositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a Ministryof Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslickand Brahms. The following year Dvorak failed to win the award, but was successful in1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and aconnection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish to publish theMoravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Daces for piano duet. These compositionswon particular popularity. There were visits to Germany and to England, where he wasalways received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time havewon in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailableposition in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvorak became professor of composition at PragueConservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of theNational Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it was hoped, would lay thefoundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvorak'stime in America are well known. Here he wrote his NinthSymphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he hadheard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet and a charmingsonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he returned home to his work at the PragueConservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and before the endof the century two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died inPrague in 1904.
Dvorak's nine symphonies span a period of nearly thirty years.
The first two were written in 1865, and the last in 1893. Both the numbering of thesymphonies and the opus numbers assigned to them have caused some confusion. The firstfour symphonies were originally omitted from the list, so that the last five werenumbered, although not in order of composition, the basis of the more usual numberingtoday. Opus numbers were also manipulated to some extent, a simple subterfuge to outwitSimrock by allocating earlier opus numbers to new compositions, on which he wouldotherwise have had an option.
The first surviving symphony by Dvorak, Symphony No.1 in C minor, was written in Februaryand March 1865. It is said that the descriptive title TheBells of Zlonice was chosen by Dvorak himself, although it does not appear onthe title-page, and it has been supposed that the title might have been used if the workwas the one that the composer had entered for a competition in Germany and of which thescore had thereafter been lost. To all intents and purposes the music was lost in thecomposer's life-time, bought in a Leipzig second-hand bookshop in 1882 and introduced tothe public only long after his death, with performance in Brno in 1936. The title refersto the town in which Dvorak had his early schooling, and the imaginative have detectedits bells in the opening of the first movement. The period of its composition coincidedwith the composer's unrequited affection for his piano pupil Josefina Cermakova of theCzech Provisional Theatre, whose sister, the contralto Anna Cermakova, he was to marryin 1873.
The symphony is scored for an orchestra that includes apiccolo, cor anglais, four horns, three trombones, trumpets and timpani, as well as theusual pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with strings. The work opens with animpressive introduction, leading to the Allegro principal section of the movement, inwhich an ominous enough theme leads eventually to a gentler melody that soon moves intofurther turbulence of feeling. The slow, movement, an A flat major Adagio, is introducedby woodwind chords, accompanied by plucked strings, followed by a finely drawn oboe melodyand a strongly felt violin theme. This is followed by a scherzo, relaxing from its openingC minor into an E flat major section, its woodwind dominated passage leading to a passageof more lyrical mood, before the repetition of the opening section. The symphony ends witha brilliant finale in the necessarily triumphant key of C major, a movement with formaltouches of counterpoint, reminiscences of what has passed, and more that a hint of theZlonice bells audible, to those who wish to hear them, in the resonant notes of the Frenchhorns.
Dvorak started work on the Legends on 30th December 1880 andcompleted the set of ten pieces for piano duet on 22nd March in the following year. InNovember he set to work to orchestrate the pieces, at the request of the publisherSimrock, as he had the first set of Slavonic Dances
written three years before. The Legends
were dedicated to the critic Eduard Hanslick, and he and Brahms welcomed the pieces withsome enthusiasm, as did the public. There was always a significant domestic market forpiano duets, explored by Brahms in his Hungarian Dances
and by Dvorak first in his Slavonic Dances.
The period of composition of the Legends
closely followed the completion of the Sixth Symphony
and was immediately followed by work on the opera Dimitrij,and may in this sense, be seen as a momentary relaxation from the demands of the largerpublic forms.
The Legends haveno overt programme. Lyrical in mood and relatively short, the ten pieces are evocativelyBohemian in character, imbued with the spirit of Dvorak's native country. Generally intripartite form, sometimes extended by repetition, the series opens with a D minorAllegretto, moving forward to a gently lyrical second piece in G major, with a contrastingminor section. The third Legend is a lively Slavonic dance, framing a more tranquilcentral section in B flat major. The fourth of the set is the longest, opening with am