Friday, September 11, 2009

Reading Dvořák's 7th

Antonín Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 7 in d minor in late 1884 and early 1885, on a commission from the London Philharmonic. It is a great masterpiece of the Romantic symphony: full of passion and drama and its Czech composer's nationalistic fervor, balanced with a mastery of form and an economy of material that raise it above many symphonies of its time. Strangely, it has long lingered in the shadow of the symphonies of Brahms, though it is the equal of any of them, and of Dvořák's later symphonies, though it is arguably better than they.

Too many people are unfamiliar with this work, apart from the theoretical existence of a predecessor to the Eighth Symphony. I think recent years have begun to rectify this. Major orchestras are making it a part of their regular repertoire. I myself have seen the New York Philharmonic play it at Avery Fisher Hall. Many fine recordings of it are in print. More and more people are finding out, as I hope you will find, that Dvořák's Seventh is a great book for the ears. And it's a page-turner, too.

The story of how this symphony was first written and performed, what Dvořák had in mind when he wrote it, and the hell he went through to get it published, I leave to Wiki to tell. I can't improve on what it says there, and I'm too tired to plagiarize it. It's worth knowing only if you have an appreciation for the piece. Such an appreciation is what I have to offer. Here are my thoughts as I listen to the CD of this symphony that I have cherished since I was in high school. Consider them as you play the version of your choice.

Movement I: Allegro maestoso (fast, majestic). A dark, brooding atmosphere opens the work. First cellos then clarinets lay out a long-limbed idea with two contrasting parts: the first smooth and flowing, the other jerky and angular. A more aggressive idea quickly follows this. Excitement builds through a transition to a brighter melody, announced by horns in dialogue with oboes; later developments will prove this to be only a decoy to the second theme. The music quickly builds to a louder repetition of the initial theme. Then another transition passage leads to a the "real" second theme, a gentle tune sung by clarinets and flutes before being repeated and developed by the strings.

Dvořák spends considerable time in this theme's graceful, pastoral world, before a reprise of the initial theme brings on a triumphant-sounding passage in which codetta overlaps with the beginning of development. You'll hear the master working through many ideas from the theme-rich exposition, but the one that seems to hold the most fascination is the initial smooth vs. jerky theme. By way of compensation, Dvořák recapitulates the peaceful second group only. Then he unleashes a coda in which the first theme grows from an anxious murmur to a thrilling overflow of passion. This subsides to a quiet passage in which the first theme seems to question itself, bringing the movement to a low-key ending.

Movement II, Poco adagio, opens with a clarinet theme of breathtaking loveliness. The music that follows is delicately sad, yet shot through with shafts of light, like happy memories of lost loved ones. Melodies flow in seemingly endless abundance, in contrasting moods from complacency to sternness to joy, joining iin a sort of musical conversation. Especially easy on the ear are the horn theme announced around three minutes in, and a cello theme heard around the 6' mark. Toward the end, an oboe reprises the opening clarinet theme. The delicately sad music that originally followed it now forms the basis for the movement's peaceful ending.

Movement III is a Scherzo, marked Vivace and based on a tricky Czech folk dance called the furiant. The main section juxtaposes two contrasting melodies simultaneously: one rhythmically crisp, the other smoothly floating yet full of brooding menace. At times the music switches rhythmic patterns and takes up different moods, from strident brutality to nervous giggling. Each time the two simultaneous main subjects are brought up, we hear them differently: first one is on top, then the other, each repetition getting louder and more energetic. The middle section of the movement, analogous to the Trio section of a classic Minuet, evokes a mental picture of lush countryside. It has its own inner contrasts, however, including a bit that sounds like someone with a bad limp running as fast as he can. After a dramatic buildup, Dvořák returns to the hushed opening of the main section, a symphonic dance that is liable to mislead you into thinking the word "furiant" might be somehow related to the word "fury."

Though the Scherzo is the most overt musical expression of Dvořák's Czech patriotism, it is the finale that he intended to depict his nation's struggle. Marked simply Allegro, it begins with a striking theme full of grim determination. Passages of violent turmoil throw this theme into sharp contrast to the buoyant second theme, which has a sort of laugh at its aft end. On its repetition, with violins in a high register over a timpani beat, one may immediately perceive this theme's potential for glorious triumph. But first we must go through the conflict, anxiety, and turmoil of the development section. Listen for a passage where the timpani throbs like a beating heart beneath the first theme. Again, Dvořák limits his recap to the second group, adding the timpani heartbeat to the anticipated triumphal version of that theme. The coda focuses on material from the first group, in all its gripping anger and danger. It concludes with a huge, broad cadence that reminds me of an elaborate "Amen."

Below is a video of this extraordinary finale, performed by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under the baton of Daniel Raiskin. Youtube also sports a video playlist of the entire symphony, plus Dvořák's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.

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