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Dvořák: Symphony No. 8

The leisurely cello melody that begins the G-major Symphony does much to establish the bucolic character we associate with the work.(A similar sort of opening is found in Mendelssohn’s A-minor Symphony, the “Scottish”) Some momentum is established with the cheery flute solo; timpani and tuba begin an orchestral crescendo that leads first to another tenor phrase-this one for violas as well as cellos-and then to a brief tutti climax.But that is immediately deflected, and by the arrival of the second group the sonority has been transformed into the minor mode and an orchestration dominated byflutes and clarinets in close harmony. This section is an excellent example of the Bohemian idiom: of pensive but not quite melancholy theme, airy orchestration, a touch of mystery suggested in the low brass, and easy shift not the major mode for affirmative climax and then out into minor again. A double bar at this point in the score confirms that the exposition is done, but Dvořák clouds the issue by beginning the development with a quotation of the cello and flute themes from the beginning: it seems for a time there’s been a repeat back to the beginning.

What follows is not so much true development, anyway, as a sort of rhapsody on the given material—Dvořák’s most natural and assured tactic of composition—with his idiomatic “Three Blind Mice” figure very much in evidence. The thematic recapitulation overlaps the end of the development in a blare of trumpets; only when it subsides do we reach the proper key area. None of these novelties is especially earth shattering for their time or place, but Dvořák accomplishes it all so smoothly you cannot help being enchanted.

The second movement’s opening gambit is uncertain, searching, and largely in minor. for every optimistic flutter of the high woodwind, there is a frowning riposte in the throbbish register of the clarinets. In view of this discourse, the arrival in C major—falling scales in the violins, staccato and pizzicato elsewhere, with a lyrical melody in flute and oboe-sounds naive. The brass entry with sudden forte shows the heroic side of the key, but the unsettling dialogue of flutes and clarinets soon reasserts itself. When the  French horn soars forth with its soulful version of the clarinet ripostes, we encounter one of Dvořák’s great eruptions of Slavic passion. The major-mode material recapitulates as well, climaxes with a hint of minor, and fades in a sparkle of distant trumpet calls.

But for its unmistakable nationality, the third movement might be dubbed Brahmsian, as much a waltz as a scherzo, and rather similar to the minor-mode waltz in Brahm’s Third. The theme of the lovely trio, in the parallel major, is presented by flute and oboe in unison; a repeat of the opening section is followed by the brisk duple coda—with yet another incarnation of the Three Blind Mice motive.

A trumpet fanfare introduces the finale. Again, the cellos have a suave melody not so different from that of the first movement: tame of forward motion, relaxed of attitude, rich of sonority. When the full orchestra shatters this atmosphere with a faster and much more excited version of the same melody, we realize we are in the midst of a fiery Bohemian dance, combining attributes of sonata, rondo, and variation practice. The tempo picks up still further with the flute episode; at the shift into minor mode there is a hollow march for the wind band. The opening cello phrases recapitulate and there follows a long winding down. This of course only makes the release of the last tutti all the more sensational.

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