5. Antonín Dvořák - Nocturne in B major, Op.40 6:40
Marek Štryncl conductor
stereo digital live recording, 2015.
The Symphony in C minor by Antonín Dvořák – his first of nine works in this genre – is a remarkable phenomenon in every way.
The story of its origin and fates forms a fantastic tale worthy of the most engaging authors of historical fiction, and yet the facts are fairly well documented. Dvořák completed the work in the spring of 1865 as a twenty-three-year-old impoverished orchestral viola player and piano teacher living in one room in Prague with four other young men. No work of his had yet been performed in public save two short organ pieces he himself had played in graduation exercises of the organists’ school. Reportedly he sent his symphony to a competition in Germany – which competition failed not only to award him a prize but also to return the score! And apparently he never saw it again. Yet it remained firmly in his memory: several times he used its themes in later works. He mentioned it to music journalists writing about his life and career, and to one of them, in 1887, he revealed that it had a subtitle, The Bells of Zlonice, apparently referring to the church bells in a town where he had lived from age twelve to fifteen, then in later years had visited his parents and siblings along with his teacher Antonín Liehmann and family.
Meanwhile, in 1882, a Prague scholar specializing in Asian studies named Rudolf Dvořák (no relation) had found the score in the offerings of an antiquarian dealer in Leipzig. And he had purchased it – but he never told the composer of his find! As late as 1894 the composer had a dream that his mother-in-law (!) had found the symphony, and he was overjoyed. But it was indeed just a dream. Not until 1923, nearly two decades after the composer’s death and three years after the death of Rudolf Dvořák, was it found among papers the latter had bequeathed to his son, and made known to the public.
No less extraordinary than the symphony’s origin and fates is the work itself. As concerns the ‘Bells of Zlonice’, no actual bells appear in the orchestra but we do hear the effect of a group of bells chiming in a repeated pattern in the winds, for the first time immediately after the brief introduction, just before the entry of the main theme with its broad upward scale. Beyond this we can only speculate about the symphony’s ‘programme’ – whether perchance it relates to special feelings Dvořák evidently harboured towards Antonín Liehmann’s daughter, or to his struggle in persuading his parents to let him pursue a career in music rather than following in his father’s footsteps as a butcher. What is clear is that the symphony presents a potent drama on a grand scale, filled with strong emotions.
In rough outlines the work conforms to traditional symphonic form, and we find specific references to two earlier composers who we know were Dvořák’s favourites during this period. The keys of the movements – C minor, A flat major, C minor, and C major – are exactly those of Beethoven’s Fifth, and there is even a terse ‘motto’ figure of five notes analogous to the four-note ‘fate motif’ in that work, here appearing first in the basses below the above-mentioned bell effect then permeating the opening movement and recurring in all the others as a unifying device. Another work that seems to have left a mark here is the ‘Great’ Symphony in C major by Schubert, most specifically in a passage near the beginning of the Finale (mm. 61-84) quite clearly modelled after one in Schubert’s opening movement. In general style, however, Dvořák’s symphony is completely original, reminding us of none of his predecessors – and also not very much of his own mature works from later years. If we were to name another composer whose style most closely resembles that of this symphony, it might be one whose music Dvořák could not have known at this stage in his career: Bruckner. But at one point in the Finale (mm. 601-12) Dvořák’s harmonic experimentation seems even to take us well into the twentieth century, with structures resembling nothing so much as another Symphony in C, by Stravinsky! Some conductors have modified this passage to eliminate its ‘errors’, thinking Dvořák could not possibly have intended these dissonances, or if so he would have removed them himself had he had a chance to revise the work in later years. Yet in the context of this movement, of this symphony, and other works Dvořák composed during this period they do have their sense: the emotions expressed in this work are extreme, and at this point the mood of intense joy that characterizes the Finale as a whole seems to pass over into delirium.
Few will be inclined to call this symphony a masterpiece: Dvořák’s lack of experience is clearly evident. But even more conspicuous is his enormous inventiveness and talent, which not only forecast a bright future for the composer but spawned here a remarkable work in some ways even surpassing those of his maturity, and certainly presenting to us as a ‘different’ Dvořák, a unique and valuable addition to the worldwide literature of music.
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