Friday, September 18, 2009

Reading Dvořák's 6th

Over a soft, rhythmically throbbing accompaniment, a noble D-Major theme slowly emerges, with the flutes and cellos tossing expanding fragments of it back and forth. Take note of its shape: an upward leap of a fourth at one end, balanced by a stepwise falling fourth at the other. Warm, romantic lushness is succeeded by a passage of contrapuntal severity. The drama builds to a massive restatement of the opening theme. A brusque, unison transition passage prepares for the second group, beginning with an elfin theme in b minor. After volunteering a bit of development on this theme, the music passes quickly through a horns-and-cellos tune (you know the type) to a gentle, good-natured, oboe theme. The orchestra takes up this melody in a codetta passage that turns first distraught, then exuberant.

Without a repeat, the exposition subsides to the quiet opening of the development section. The first theme with its motivic fourths is the first item of inquiry. The orchestra broods over bits of it, then over the contrapuntal subject from the first group. After some powerfully scored chord progressions fill out the development section's tonal dance card, a big build-up leads into the gentle opening of the recap. Now that you're hearing it for the second time, you may have more leisure to think: "Brahms could have written this!" It's nice to hear the second group again, isn't it? One really missed hearing its sweet tunes during the development. It climaxes in its exuberant codetta, then goes on into a coda that gets even more glorious mileage out of the second group's themes. The opening theme finally returns in a blaze of trumpets and horns. Then, after an unexpected moment of quiet tenderness, the oboe theme from the second group transforms itself into a strong, unison exclamation-point at the end of the movement.

Thus far Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 6 in D Major, written in 1880 on a commission from conductor Hans Richter (pictured at left) and the Vienna Philharmonic. As it turned out, the Vienna Philharmonic didn't get around to playing it until 1942, chiefly because of prejudice against the composer's Czech nationality. The parochial swine! Nevertheless, it became well established as a masterpiece of the romantic symphony, with Richter himself conducting its London premiere in 1882, and the piece's world premiere taking place in Prague a year earlier.

The first of Dvořák's symphonies to be published, it has been designated as his First Symphony (by the publisher), his Fifth (by the composer himself), and now, more accurately, as his Sixth. It is perhaps the earliest of Dvořák's symphonies to deserve a place in the standard repertoire. It may also be the last of them that the average symphony buff will get to know. But it is so full of genius, charm, and exquisite craftmanship, that I doubt your first time hearing it will be your last.

In Movement II, the slow movement, a brief woodwind passage prefaces a broad, lyrical theme announced by the violins. Listen for an oboe countermelody, a horn answer, and a dialogue between the string and wind sections of the orchestra in the bars that follow. Very quickly and economically, Dvořák sets up a movement rich in textural and color contrasts. Around 1'35" something a little more upbeat enters the argument, balanced immediately by the slowest material yet. Listen for the woodwinds' off-the-beat decorations beneath the strings' surface music.

The opening section, or variations thereof, return in alternation with a contrasting episode and a development-like passage, qualifying this movement as somewhat of a sonata-rondo. Most of the movement, however, is given to the study of the beautiful main theme, including some gorgeous writing for solo strings, a memorable horn part, a tragic minor-key variation, a flute cadenza, a militaristic passage in which the timpani player comes into prominence, and some of the most breathtaking orchestral sonorities money can buy. The movement seems reluctant to take its leave, even after a very strong summary statement of the opening theme. Who can blame it? We ourselves would be reluctant to take leave of a scene as beautiful as this!

Movement III, marked Presto, is another Furiant-cum-Scherzo, with hemiolas (rhythmic displacements) giving its theme the illusion of being partly in 2/4 and partly in 3/4. Beginning with crescendo over a rocking octave pattern, it explodes into one of Dvořák's most famous Scherzos, and thus also the movement most often excerpted from this symphony. It's an aggressive piece, like a dance that can't decide whether it's excited or angry. The B section has a contrastingly cool-headed secondary theme, but in context one never forgets the tension that underlies it - or rather, the opening furiant theme, which can still be heard in the background. This section is rounded off by a big buildup to the climactic restatement of the opening dance theme, complete with out-of-control timpani, as if someone has gotten so excited that their heart started palpitating.

The idyllically sweet Trio, featuring an important solo for the piccolo (heard only here out of the entire symphony), sets off a striking contrast to the gigantic energy of the main Scherzo. I didn't notice this, particularly, until I saw the work performed. It was hard not to notice the piccolo player sitting there with his hands folded through the entire piece, only to come out and shine for this one, brief moment. The B section of the Trio reminds me of a refreshing horseback ride through the countryside on a fine day. Then the Scherzo returns in all its demonic energy. A short, brutally rushed coda caps off the number.

The finale is an Allegro con spirito, which (I trust) needs no translation. Its opening theme is motivically related to that of the first movement, but more given to an unbroken flow of exultant melody. Listen for a minor-modish secondary theme around 1'25", or rather two musical ideas superimposed on each other. The more agile of these ideas then alternates with a full-throated theme of swaggering exuberance, starting at about 1'50". I am particularly charmed by the codetta theme introduced at about 2'10". Is that about enough thematic inventiveness for one movement?

If Dvořák is to be faulted for anything, it is having such an unrestrained gift for melody. It gets hard to do justice to all these musical ideas in the development section of a sonata structure, but the composer gives it his best! When you hear bold upward leaps of a fourth sprinkled through this passage, you should be reminded of the first movement. In my opinion, it's a very absorbing and stimulating development section. Listen for the opening theme blown up to a big, broad, brass chorale. Soon afterward, the recap begins as gently as it may. It has all the triumphal glory one would expect, plus a lengthy coda with racing strings, blaring brass, and jubilation so wild the orchestra can scarcely contain it. The use of the opening theme, at various speeds, as the final word on Symphony Six seems inevitable, yet it fills the listener with a satisfied glow.

Be sure to visit Wiki for musical examples and an in-depth analysis (which I mostly ignored). Sorry, I can't seem to find a decent video of this work being performed. So, you're on your own!

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