Friday, August 22, 2014

Dvořák - Symphony No. 8 In G Major

Antonín Dvořák's father was the village butcher who was also an innkeeper and amateur musician. Antonin was born in a little town outside of Prague and was apprenticed as a butcher in his father's shop for three years. But due to his natural abilities in music and the patronage of an uncle, he studied music, played in an orchestra as violist, held organ positions and finally made a name for himself as a composer. He became one of the most well-known composers of his era and had an international reputation.

But at heart Dvořák remained a simple man. Two of his greatest pleasures were trains and nature. He memorized train schedules so he could meet the trains when they came into the station and loved to ride on them. He wrote some of his best and most famous compositions while he was in the countryside of his native Bohemia and at the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa when he was in the United States.

He wrote the 8th Symphony during the summer at his vacation cottage in the country in Bohemia in 1889.  The work has been called his Pastoral Symphony, and compared to his dramatic Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8 is a lyrical work full of melodies and moods of his native countryside. but the work is much more than that.  Dvořák intended to use a different treatment of themes in his 8th Symphony, which he accomplished to mixed reviews.  Johannes Brahms was one who had mixed feelings about the work, as he spelled out in a letter to his publisher:
Too much that's fragmentary, incidental, loiters about in the piece.  Everything fine, musically captivating and beautiful - but no main points! Especially in the first movement, the result is not proper. But a charming musician!
It is good to remember that Brahms helped Dvořák to get music published in his early days and was a friend. Brahms' genuinely liked and admired Dvořák's music, but that did not stop him from critiquing it through the filter of his own style.  But criticisms of a more biting nature have appeared over the years, which have added to the reputation that the 8th is not one of Dvořák's best works. But by listening to it with a careful ear, what seems at first hearing to be episodic and disconnected actually has a structure all its own. That it is a structure somewhat removed from the traditional is true, but that is what makes the work part of the triumvirate of Dvořák's three final great symphonies.  The 8th Symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro con brio -  The first movement begins not in G major, but G minor. This first theme also acts as an introduction, and is soon interrupted by a solo flute that is giving out the first hint of the second birdsong-like theme in G major. The second theme is taken up by the orchestra and builds to a climax and is followed by a third theme. Themes two and three have a short dialog until the birdsong theme finally wins out. Another climax is reached with the second theme and yet another theme appears, after which fragments of what has gone on before leads to another climax. The music fades and the very first theme appears to signal the beginning of the development section. Bits and parts of themes are tossed about the orchestra during the development. The very first theme reappears as a lead in to the recapitulation.  Dvořák again throws out themes and fragments of themes as he builds up to the final chords of the movement.

II. Adagio -  A solemn theme in C minor opens the movement, and soon flutes answered by clarinets lighten the mood somewhat. This is all by way of introduction to a folk-like theme in C major. The orchestra takes up the theme and increases the volume of it on its way to a climax. The flutes and clarinets take up their call and answer again in hushed tones that gradually die away. The strings play very quietly and the horns call out the beginning of a new theme that is vaguely related to the very first theme of the movement. This gives way to a more decorated version of the folk-like theme. A variant of the opening theme is heard as the music builds to a final climax before it fades away.

III. Allegretto grazioso - Molto vivace -  A theme is played in waltz time in G minor. A new theme in G major is heard in the oboe in the trio section a tune that Dvořák had previously used in an early opera. The oboes and flutes carry the tune in two beats to the bar while the strings accompany in three to the bar, one of Dvořák's favorite rhythmic devices. The first theme is repeated and leads to a short repeat of the theme of the trio in a faster tempo, in 2/4 time with the full orchestra before the music fades away.

IV. Allegro ma non troppo -  A trumpet fanfare opens the movement after which the main theme of the movement is played. There are seven variations of this theme that was inspired by Dvořák's beloved Czech folk music.  A slow, heartfelt variation leads to a vigorous repeat of a previous loud outburst and finishes off the symphony with a Czech furiant.

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