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Symphony No. 7 in D Minor

Like Mozart’s three last symphonies, Dvořák’s Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth pretty well overwhelm, in magnitude of achievement, what has come before. These were opus 70 in D minor, 1885; opus 88 in G major, 1889; and opus 95 in E minor, 1893, called “From the New World.” We like to claim, from this last work and from the composer’s sojourn in New York and Iowa, that Dvořák was internationalized in and by America.But in fact that began to happen in England a decade before, when the London performance of his Stabat mater in 1883 begat splendid visits the following year and the London Philharmonic’s commission of this new symphony. Among the orchestral musicians encountering the Stabat mater at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester was the young Edward Elgar. “I wish you could hear Dvořák’s music,” he wrote an acquaintance. “It is simply ravishing, so tuneful and clear and the orchestration is wonderful: no matter how few instruments he uses it never sounds thin. I cannot describe it, it must be heard.”

The D-minor Symphony, moreover, reflects a particular moment in Czech nationalism, as artists gathered at the newly completed National Theatre in Prague in flamboyant support of their cultural agenda. Finally, to judge from a note in the autograph score of the second movement—“from the sad years”—there may be reference to a sequence of deaths in the immediate family. I think the Seventh is one of the great panorama symphonies, as one evocation of the out-of-doors yields to the next over the course of four taut movements. (“Not a single superfluous note,” remarked the composer.) Note especially the great watery surge and ebb at the climax of the slow movement and the dozens of decorative figures in the sylvan mode: that of the Bohemian forest. Together these summarize two disparate artistic goals: to achieve an international style—a form of musical tourism, perhaps—appropriate to the commissioning audience, and to probe themes of patriotism at home: “God, Love, and Country,” as he put it.

Both the first and second movements suggest Dvořák’s infatuation with the new Third Symphony of Johannes Brahms: the compact sonata form and sextuple meter of the Allegro, for instance, and the warm woodwind chorale that begins the slow movement (as well as its overall pastorality). Dvořák’s is perhaps the richer in color, primarily by virtue of the strong hold of minor-mode palletes but also owing to the foreboding, ominous qualities built into the leading motive. French horns have the prominent solo work in the second movement, with richly ornamented lyric melodies and multi-octave arpeggios to be savored.

The scherzo is in the same idiom as the Dvořák Slavonic Dances, a Furiant to be exact, its metric fabric featuring prominent hemiola (three-against-two); the G-major trio is given over to dialogue of the solo wind players. In the finale, the dark D-minor opening march reaches for and at length achieves a victorious stance to conclude in D major—a common-enough device by this point in the nineteenth century. Dvořák suggested that the movement, like a number of others from his pen, was meant as a promise of eventual victory over the [Austrian] oppressor.

For flutes I–II (piccolo), oboes I–II, clarinets I–II, bassoons I–II; horns I–IV, trumpets I–II, trombones I–III; timpani; strings.

Composed December 13, 1884, to March 17, 1885, in Prague, for the London Philharmonic Society, to which it is dedicated.

First performed April 22, 1885, by the London Philharmonic Society, the composer conducting, St. James Hall, London.

Published N. Simrock [Fritz Simrock], Berlin 1885 (as “Symphony No. 2”).

Duration about 40 minutes.

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