DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 / Symphonic Variations (Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Stephen Gunzenhauser) (Naxos: 8.550271)
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Antonin Dvořak (1841 - 1941)
Symphony No.9 in E Minor, Op. 95 (From the New World)
Symphonic Variations, Op. 78
Antonin Dvořak was born in 1841, the son of a village butcher andinnkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, and someforty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the exampleof his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end heleft school at the age of eleven. There is no record of his competence inbutchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he wassent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued his schooling,learning German and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill inwhich he had already acquired at home and in the village band and church.
Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia,led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, from which hegraduated two years later.
In the year that followed, Dvořak earned his living as aviola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komsak which was to formthe nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Fouryears later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czechoperas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and the Bartered Bride had already beenperformed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořak resigned from the theatreorchestra, to take a wife and a position as an organist and support himself byadditional private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions thatgradually became known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a government grant,through the agency of the critic Eduard Hanslick and of Brahms. With theencouragement of the latter came opportunities for the wider dissemination ofhis music and Dvořak was to win particular popularity with his MoravianDuets, followed by the first set of Slavonic Dances, originally also for pianoduet. There were visits to Germany and to England, and a series of compositionsthat secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honourin the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvořak became professor of composition at PragueConservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited by Mrs. JeannetteThurber, wife of a rich American grocer, to become director of the NationalConservatory of Music in New York, a position he took up that autumn. Here itwas hoped that he would establish a new American tradition of music, whileserving as a distinguished figurehead for the new institution.
By 1895, in the course of a second two-year contract. Dvořak hadhad enough of America. In any case Mrs. Thurber had found it difficult to payhim as regularly as she should have done. Returning to Europe, he resumed hisduties at the Prague Conservatory of which he was to become nominal director in1901, able to spend most of his time at his country retreat with his family andhis pigeons. He died on 1 May. 1904.
Dvořak wrote nine symphonies, variously numbered, since he triedto discard earlier attempts at the form, undertaken in 1863. The last of thesymphonies, published as No.5, but in fact the ninth. has the explanatory title"From the New World". It was written in the early months of 1893 andfirst performed at Carnegie Hall on 16th December of the same year by the NewYork Philharmonic Orchestra under Anton Seidl. It was an immediate success.
Dvořak was deeply influenced by America and by the Indian andNegro music he heard, as well as the songs of Stephen Foster. In Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha he found anexpression of American identity that also found a place in his symphony. Hemade it clear that all the themes were original, although shaped by the use ofparticular rhythmic and melodic features of music of the New World.
Nevertheless the symphony retains an inevitable air of Bohemia.
Mrs. Thurber had hoped that Hiawatha might form the basis of anAmerican opera from the composer she had hired. The slow movement of thesymphony, with its famous cor anglais solo, is described by a note of thecomposer's as Morning, possibly the blessing of the cornfields in Longfellow'spoem, rather than the burial in the forest that has been identified with themovement. The third movement is associated with Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, with the bridegroom.
Whirling, spinning round in circles, Leaping o'er the guests assembled,energetic activity contrasted with a more properly Bohemian trio section. Thefinal movement, with its references to what has passed, forms a brilliantconclusion, ending in the quietest possible sustained chord.
Dvořak's Symphonic Variations,Opus 78, were written in the late summer of 1877 and show thecomposer's particular ability in the form. It is said that the composition wasin answer to a challenge from a friend to write variations on a theme thatseemed impossible for the purpose, the male part-song \Ja jsem husler" (I am afiddler). The theme itself, baldly stated, is followed by twenty-seven variationsof wit, ingenuity and remarkable invention, with a splendid command of theresources of the orchestra. The series ends with a fugue, followed by a seriesof episodes that establish a much less formal mood.
The American conductor Stephen Gunzenhauser was educated in New York,continuing his studies at Oberlin, at the Salzburg Mozarteum, at the NewEngland Conservatory and at Cologne State Conservatory. His period at the lastof these was the result of a Fulbright Scholarship, followed by an award fromthe West German Government and a first prize in the conducting competition heldin the Spanish town of Santiago.
For NAXOS Gunzenhauser recorded Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, Beethoven's Overtures, the Saint-Sa?½ns Organ Symphony, Orff's Carmina Burana and the symphonies ofBorodin. He is currently engaged in recording all the symphonies and symphonicpoems of Dvořak, also for NAXOS.