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Symphony No. 6

The first movement of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony is one of the most majestic in the literature—grand, rhetorical, and yet totally unselfconscious.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia; died May 1, 1904, in Prague
  • Year completed: 1880
  • First performance: Prague, March 25, 1881, Czech Theatre Orchestra, Adolf Čech conducting
  • First BSO performance: October 26, 1883, Georg Henschel conducting
  • Approximate duration: 48 minutes

The score of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

In July 1874, Antonín Dvořák submitted fifteen works, including his Third and Fourth symphonies (the E-flat and early D minor), into consideration for an Austrian State Stipend for “young, poor, and talented painters, sculptors, and musicians, in the Austrian half of the [Hapsburg] Empire.” The judges included Johann Herbeck, who was conductor of the Vienna State Opera; the critic Eduard Hanslick, and Johannes Brahms. Dvořák was one of the winners, as he would be again in 1876 and then in 1877, the year Brahms really set him on his way by championing him to the publisher Simrock. In 1878 Simrock accordingly published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, Opus 32, and the Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, the latter specifically commissioned by the publisher. A quick succession of further publications, and then performances throughout Europe and as far afield as Cincinnati and New York, began to earn the composer an international reputation.

On the evening of November 16, 1879, Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic in the local premiere of the Slavonic Rhapsody in A-flat, Opus 45, No. 3. During the bows Dvořák “had to assure the Philharmonic that I would send them a symphony for the next season. The day after the concert, Richter gave a banquet at his house, in my honor so to speak, to which he invited all the Czech members of the orchestra. It was a grand evening which I shall not easily forget as long as I live.”

It had been five years since Dvořák completed his last symphony, the F major of 1875. The composer’s delightful (and sadly neglected) Symphonic Variations for orchestra were completed in September 1877, followed in 1878 by the Opus 44 Serenade, the Opus 46 Slavonic Dances, the Opus 45 Rhapsodies, and some smaller works in 1879 and early 1880. Now it was time for another symphony. Richter was so thrilled with the new work upon its delivery to him by Dvořák in November 1880 that he kissed the composer after each movement as Dvořák played them through on the piano.

The premiere was scheduled for December 26 in Vienna, but in the event the first performance, on which occasion the scherzo was encored, was given not by Richter but by Adolf Čech, in Prague, the following March. It seems that certain highly placed members of the Vienna Philharmonic were unwilling to play music by a new Czech composer in two successive seasons, though Dvořák found this out only by investigating the situation on his own after Richter had asked for a series of postponements citing various illnesses in his family, the death of his mother, and then work pressures. The symphony was finally heard in Vienna only on February 18, 1883, with the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde under the direction of Wilhelm Gericke, soon to become the second music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By then it had already been given in London and New York.

The first movement of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony is one of the most majestic in the literature—grand, rhetorical, and yet totally unselfconscious. Brahms composed his D major symphony (No. 2) in 1877, and it is hard not to hear momentary echoes of that work in the opening phrases of Dvořák’s first movement and finale. But the point is that these echoes do not matter, for the language Dvořák speaks is his own, his music has an entirely individual feel and energy level. Throughout the first movement, indeed throughout the symphony, everything connects: at the very beginning, over softly syncopated violas and horns, a horncall-like woodwind accompaniment figure grows from two to three to four notes as it joins the violins for the first line of melody, then reverses its contour to echo what has preceded. Bit by bit, and still in the opening moments, the orchestral texture thickens, phrases extend a bit farther than we expect, there is an increase of movement and weight, and the main theme, marked “grandioso,” is proclaimed by full orchestra. The arabesque-like violin lines that play against the lilt of cellos and horns as the second theme begins grow directly from the end of the preceding transitional material; and the “real” second theme, given first to the oboes, achieves new strength and character when taken soon thereafter by full orchestra. It also provides the gently ebullient close of the last four measures after the suggestion of what could have been an equally convincing quiet ending. If I were permitted just one Dvořák movement for future hearings, this would be it.

In the woodwinds of the second movement’s introductory measures, in the timpani strokes of the coda, and even in the scheme of successively embellishing and elaborating his theme, Dvořák’s music suggests the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. But Beethoven is concerned with contrasts, and with leading us to higher spheres, whereas Dvořák is content here to offer more in the way of an outdoor idyll. The scherzo is overtly nationalistic, a stomping and energetic Czech furiant full of two-against-three cross-rhythms, while the Trio, emphasizing softer dynamic levels and the upper orchestral registers—this is the only place in the symphony where the piccolo is heard—returns to an airier and more relaxed view of the countryside.

Dvořák marks his finale “Allegro con spirito,” and the second measure of his theme harks back to the first movement. Once again, an idea introduced pianissimo is quickened, fortissimo and grandioso, by full orchestra, and the weighty accents of this music heighten the rustic, dancelike character of the whole. The development churns up considerable energy but then eases into the recapitulation with mysterious and utmost tranquility. A cascade of violins (“left to do a volplane by themselves,” says the eminent British composer and musicologist Donald Francis Tovey) energizes the coda, in which the main theme, fragmented, serves as basis for a jovial lesson in counterpoint, bursting into a glorious peroration radiant with sunshine and high spirits.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.