DVORAK: Symphony No. 2 / Legends Op. 59, Nos. 6-10 (Martin Sauer/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Stephen Gunzenhauser) (Naxos: 8.550267)
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Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)
Symphony No.2 in B Flat Major
Legends Op. 59, Nos. 6 - 10
Antonrn Dvorak was bornin 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy,in Bohemia, and some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow theexample of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end heleft school at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence inbutchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodgewith an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learningGerman and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had alreadyacquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and of musicat Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the PragueOrgan School, from which he graduated two years later.
In the years thatfollowed, Dvorak earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction ofKarel Komzak which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra,established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house,where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had alreadybeen performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvorak resigned from the theatre orchestra, todevote more time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable localattention. Two years later he married and early in 1874 became orginist of the church ofSt. Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching,while busy on aseries of compositions that gradully 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 SlavonicDances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There werevisits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasmthan a Czech composer would ever at that time have won in Vienna. The series ofcompositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a placeof 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 Ninth Symphony, From the New World, itsthemes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negromusic, 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.
Dvorak's Second Symphony,in B flat major, was written in the autumn of 1865, separated from the earliersymphony by the composition of the song-cycle Cypresses. It is scored for the same forcesas its predecessor and is again in the usual four movements. The circumstances ofcomposition were, as before, straitened. Dvorak was first viola in the Theatre Orchestra,leading a section of two players. His meagre income allowed him enough to share a roomwith a group of colleagues and friends, one of whom had a piano, an instrument he had beentoo poor to afford himself. The symphony was performed once in the composer's life-time,in 1888, in a revised version.
While some have seen a connection between Dvorak's C minor Symphony and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in the same key, others have detecteda resemblance between the B flat major Symphony andBeethoven's Pastoral, if only one of mood.
At the same time it is possible to detect an overt Wagnerian aspect to the work, in itsharmonies and in its treatment of climaxes. The first movement is rich in melodicinvention and displays the composer's command of the orchestra and Bohemian use of thewind instruments, which often assume prominence.
The slow movement is in G minor, gently evocative, the first ofits three sections dominated by a gradually unwinding violin melody. There is anunexpected contrapuntal interruption of the lyrical flow of the music and a dramaticclimax, as the trumpets introduce the return of the first section with a fanfare. Therelative stillness of night is to be disturbed again before all is finished. This, thelongest movement of the symphony, is followed by the scherzo, the introduction to whichprovides a slow transition to a principal melody of particular charm and music of markedcontrast, before there is a shift to A major for the trio section of the movement. Thesound of the scherzo melts away and the violas, in the least flattering part of theirregister, are entrusted with the sinister opening of the finale, which proceeds at once tosomething more cheerful, although the movement is not without darker touches.
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 Legends,at the request of the publisher Simrock, as he had the first set of Slavonic Danceswritten three years before. The Legends werededicated to the critic Eduard Hanslick, and he and Brahms welcomed the pieces with someenthusiasm, as did the public. There was always a significant domestic market for pianoduets, 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 workon the opera Dimitrij, and may in thissense, be seen as a momentary relaxation from the demands of the larger public forms.
The Legends have no overt programme. Lyrical in mood andrelatively short, the ten pieces are evocatively Bohemian in character, imbued with thespirit of Dvorak's native country. The sixth introduces an element of romantic drama,gent I y relaxed in the central section and final bars. The seventh, an Allegrettograzioso in A major, has an element of caprice in its opening rhythm, moving to a liveliermiddle section. There follows a pastoral F major Legend, the opening bars of which, atleast, recall a Chopin Ballade, as somecritics have noted. The ninth employs a Bohemian dance form and the series ends with