Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading Dvořák's 8th

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer with an overflowing gift of melody, an ear for elements of the folk music of his part of Europe (which often found their way into his fine-art music), and an all but tireless industry that, in a lifespan similar to that of his friend Brahms, produced over twice as many symphonies as the latter. Several of them are only heard today by studious headcases, like me, who need to experience everything.

This is how I picked up on another noteworthy trait of Dvořák the symphonist: prolixity. He had a natural tendency to water down his musical argument with charming digressions and an overabundance of finicky detail. So when you consider that his second-last symphony - the Eighth in G Major (1889) - is one of his shortest symphonies, clocking in at some 37 minutes, you have to appreciate it for the special effort Dvořák made to keep it tight, direct, and economical. As a result the Eighth, though overshadowed by his too-popular Ninth ("New World") Symphony, can be regarded as one of his greatest accomplishments. At least it is likely to be regarded, one way or the other, because its short duration encourages avid tryers-of-new-things to give it a shot. And then they (you) will find out what a delightful, brilliant piece Dvořák's G Major Symphony is!

Dvořák started writing symphonies in 1865, a decade before Brahms, and when he was still quite a young man. So although some allege that Dvořák merely builds on the work of Brahms, it simply isn't the case. He was already an accomplished and mature symphonist by 1875, the year of his Fifth Symphony (the "first" as far as being widely played and appreciated goes) and the year before Brahms's First. In his early symphonies you can hear Dvořák assimilating the style of Wagner, Bruckner, Schumann, and (yes) Brahms. By the Fifth he had definitely established his own voice. And by the Seventh - written in 1885, the year of Brahms's last symphony - he had honed his craft to the point of writing three of the greatest masterpieces in history. The middle of these three is the shortest, brightest, and most cheerful of the three, so that it shares in the joy it gives.

Movement I opens in G minor with an elegiac melody in the cellos and lower winds. The flute introduces a birdsong-like theme, which assumes dominance as the music accelerates to its primary tempo of Allegro con brio (fast, with spirit) and rises to a high pitch of drama. The gentler second group includes a hesitant string theme, a folk-dancy clarinet tune, and a chorale-like theme, before the codetta transforms the opening cello theme into a brass fanfare. This dies away as the exposition concludes with a remarkable transition back to the slower opening. The expected repeat of the exposition only carries as far as the flute entrance, where the music swerves off into development.

In the development section, Dvořák shows off his seemingly endless gift for inventing new combinations of instrumental colors, moods, and textures. He discovers a variety of uses for his themes, building up to a climax of shattering power. The music calms down to a recapitulation that begins with the flute theme. Then he adds about a minute's worth of exciting coda to wrap up the movement.

Movement II, an Adagio in C minor, begins with a poignant string statement. A dialogue between pairs of flutes and clarinets unfolds next, a dialogue that continues even after the full orchestra takes it up: the "flute" side of the dialogue stubbornly insistent, the "clarinet" side full of passionate longing. About three minutes in, Dvořák introduces a lighter episode with a deeply happy melody spinning out against an accompaniment of descending scales. Just as it reaches a thrilling volume, it falls away into the ending of that first, quiet string theme. The flute-clarinet dialogue returns, but now it develops in a new direction, throbbing with anxiety. As the crisis reaches its peak, the descending scales return along with the contented theme they accompany. The opening string theme returns once more in a stronger, wrapping-up guise, and the insistent "flute" side of the dialogue turns into closing chords.

Movement III, Allegro grazioso, is a silky-smooth dance number in G minor. The first section flows with long-limbed phrases and only subtle hints of the rhythmic contrasts and cross-accents typical of the folk music Dvořák loved. The middle section, with the melody introduced by a flute, shows these traits more strongly; note the "boom, boom, da-boom" accompaniment, first in the low strings, then in timpani and horns. The sense that two completely separate things are going on at the same time, and yet miraculously harmonize with each other, comes out strongly in this section, as in many of Dvořák's other characteristic dances. The movement continues with a repeat of the first section (I think of this as an ABA structure, rather than a scherzo-and-trio), then wraps up with a coda in 2/4 time.

Movement IV, Allegro ma non troppo, opens with a fanfare-like theme stated, for beginners, by the trumpets in unison. A contrastingly contemplative cello theme appears, followed by a variation in the bass and a countermelody above; then the orchestra breaks out in a paroxysm of hysterical joy that frames a variation in which the flute elaborates on the melody. The return of the paroxysm signals a minor-mode passage that combines a loose variation on the cello theme with a kind of thematic development, building up to a thrilling return of the fanfare theme at about 4'30". The excitement subsides, and the cello theme returns as before. This time it is followed by two or three variations that increasingly relax the listener, growing gradually softer and slower. I say "two or three" because the last "variation" kind of falls asleep on itself, inviting your head to nod - and thereby sets you up for a bracing shock as the "paroxysm of hysterical joy" returns, straining the orchestra to its limit. This time, instead of introducing a flute variation, the paroxysm is extended into a noisy coda filled with shouting brass, pounding timpani, and chromatic* running-about.

The first time I heard Dvořák's Eighth, I was left in awe. I admire it to this day. It is an exciting piece full of breathtaking beauties, blazes of joy, and dark shadows filled with pain. It has ribald jokes, noble gestures, and passages of yearning sensitivity. Its structural argument is original and astoundingly clever. It shows a composer who could combine themes effortlessly, a master of orchestral coloration and dramatic shape, a patriot who took inspiration from the music of his people and brought it into the world of art and culture. And it sticks in one's head. The first time you hear it, you will be amazed that you hadn't come to know it sooner; on each subsequent hearing you will be equally amazed by the feeling of being greeted by a friend.

*That is, moving up and down by half-steps. IMAGES: Photos and a portrait of Antonín Dvořák, with apologies to Corbis and Superstock.

EDIT: In the video below, somebody named Dane Lam conducts the first movement of this symphony.

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