ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.5 in F major, Opus 76
Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He composed the symphony in F between June 15 and July 23, 1875. It is dedicated to Hans von Bülow. The premiere took place in Prague on March 25, 1879. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (first doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings. Duration is about 36 minutes.
No composer was more thoroughly self-taught than Dvořák, who began life in the humble circumstances of a butcher's son in the Bohemian countryside but grew to be the toast of two continents. Of his nine symphonies, the earliest ones are the work of an extraordinarily talented young man learning his craft. And the last ones are among the most popular works of the romantic era. But it is little short of astonishing that his Fifth Symphony is all but unknown, for it is with this work that Dvořák left his symphonic apprenticeship definitively behind him and attained not only mastery but also that individual, loveable style that made him so popular both in his day and ours.
At the time Dvořák conceived the work, he had already given up his time-consuming position as a violist in the opera orchestra in Prague for a position as organist at the parish church of St. Adalbert. This was not a lucrative post, to be sure, but it allowed him a great deal more time for composition. Some of his compositions had been performed in Prague, but he remained totally unknown outside the Bohemian capital. Yet just as he was working on the symphony, he was also completing the application for a state grant given to young and needy composers who were citizens of the Austrian empire. He submitted a number of his works to the judging committee in Vienna, among them Johannes Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick. He submitted fifteen compositions, including his Third and Fourth symphonies, chamber music, an opera, and more. The committee was impressed by the quality of the work of this thirty-three year old music teacher who was “completely without means,” and also by the fact that so many of his works had already been performed. He was not just a hypothetical composer, but a very active one. Noting that he could still not afford even a piano of his own, the committee awarded him 450 gulden “to ease his straitened circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.”
The award certainly accomplished the latter goal. Dvořák at once began a remarkable burst of creative activity, completing in less than five months a string quintet that he had already started, a piano trio, a piano quartet, a set of four Moravian Duets for soprano and tenor, and his best symphony to that time. As often happened when the spirit of composition was upon him, Dvořák worked with amazing speed, completing the entire symphony in the five weeks between June 15 and July 23, 1875. Strangely enough the symphony had to wait four years for a performance and twelve for publication.
In the meantime, the state stipend, which would be renewed annually for the next four years, had brought Dvořák to the attention Brahms, who became his friend and mentor. In 1877, Brahms also recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock, who brought out the majority of Dvořák's work, including, eventually, the F-major symphony.
All of these happy events were still in the future when Dvořák composed the Fifth Symphony, yet the work bubbles with good cheer, with the love of the natural world that seems to fill many of its pages, and with an assured and richly varied understanding of the orchestral instruments and their various colors and effects.
As with a number of Dvořák's works, it is important to pay particular attention to the very opening of this piece--an atmospheric, fresh-air kind of music--because, as often happens with Dvořák, the symphony will refer often to these seemingly simple, almost naive ideas. Over a rustle of strings the clarinets offer a distant outdoorsy theme; the rustling of the strings continues and the remainder of the orchestra continues with figures derived from the very opening. The tunes have a gentle swing to them, sometimes growing to explosive outbursts, but always in a spirit of good humor.
The slow movement is also richly lyrical, mellow, but not unduly somber. Dvořák rings the changes on his themes with a confident mastery of the orchestra, a transparency achieved through the many years of work on four previous symphonies and other compositions, and the happy opportunity to hear most of them performed. The melodies flow, while the accompaniments enrich with both harmonic color and rhythmic activity. For a moment, during a transitional passage, we can hear a hint of Wagner, whose music had captivated Dvořák at an early point, but which he had mostly shucked off to become truly himself.
The slow movement comes to its end, and yet it doesn’t. Just after the closing chords, a brief linking passage continues the ideas of the slow movement to link us to the lively world of the dance that is the scherzo. It is too bumptious and lively to be a waltz. Rather it is more in the nature of a vigorous folk dance in triple meter. When the dance ends the first time around, a chromatic linking passage turns to the Trio, of which the opening figure in the flutes at least suggests (without quoting) the clarinet tune the opened the entire symphony. The trio is harmonically darker, and the return to the first section has the effect of the sun's return.
Dvořák created his most accomplished finale yet for this symphony. It begins with an assertive quasi-Baroque figure that soon becomes the basis of a brassy march. The remarkable feature here is that Dvořák begins the finale in the “wrong” key—that of the slow movement—and only gradually brings it around, with a great outburst of energy, to the home key, by which time the movement has already been underway for some fifty measures. The secondary theme is in the same harmonic world as the Trio of the third movement. The development of the material is both extensive and dramatic. The turbulent character of the movement finally resolves to the transparent F-major of the opening, and a smiling, fresh-air tranquility that marks the ending of the work. Though Dvořák builds a firm and assertive closing phrase, the finale nonetheless bids farewell in the spirit with which the symphony first greeted us--the elegant, transparent, and joyous effusion of a composer who has truly found his individual personality and his musical language.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)