Antonín Dvořák was born at Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves), Bohemia, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He began to sketch this symphony on December 13, 1884, and completed the score on March 17, 1885. Dvořák himself conducted the premiere on April 22, 1885, at Saint James’s Hall, London, at a concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society. The score as we now know it incorporates a few revisions made in June 1885.
The score of Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
When Volume II of Donald Francis Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis appeared in 1935, many of his readers must have been startled to come across this sentence: “I have no hesitation in setting Dvořák’s [Seventh] Symphony along with the C major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms, as among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven.”* (Footnote follows this paragraph.) For one thing, hardly any of Tovey’s readers were likely ever to have heard the D minor symphony. Performances of any of Dvořák’s symphonies other than the New World were extremely rare, at least outside Czechoslovakia. Václav Talich’s wonderful recording of No. 7 with the Czech Philharmonic came out in 1938, but record buyers in those days were also relatively few and had smaller collections, to say nothing of the fact that during the Second World War, with the ingredients of shellac needed for a more urgent cause, there was a huge and frustrating discrepancy between what manufacturers listed in their catalogues and what one could actually find in stores. In sum, for most people the “other” Dvořák symphonies were a discovery of the years after the war.
(* Actually what Tovey wrote was “Second Symphony.” Only five of Dvořák’s nine symphonies were published during the composer’s lifetime, and only after 1955, as the complete critical edition of his works began to come out of Prague, did people adopt the present numbering that takes all nine symphonies into account and places them in their correct chronological order. The old numbering reflects the order of publication.)
If a reader half a century ago found Tovey’s assessment of the D minor symphony surprising, that was also because neither professional musicians nor listeners were inclined to take Dvořák terribly seriously. He was the composer of the Symphony From the New World, the Carnival Overture, and the Slavonic Dances—a composer for popular concerts, a genre- and landscape-artist, friendly, colorful, but not a plausible person to have written one of the “greatest and purest” symphonies since Beethoven and hardly to be mentioned in the same breath as so secure a tenant in the pantheon as Johannes Brahms. The first to disagree with that judgment would have been the redoubtable Dr. Brahms himself, he who had used his prestige to set his younger colleague up with an important publisher, helped him to get a series of government grants, and was ever available to him with kindness and advice.
Dvořák’s problematic estate fifty, sixty, seventy years ago was a drastic change from the enormous esteem in which he was held from the 1880s on. His fame at home had begun with the performance in 1873 of a patriotic cantata called The Heirs of the White Mountain. In 1878, at the urging of Brahms, the Berlin firm of Simrock added Dvořák to its list. Simrock began by issuing the Moravian Duets (for soprano and mezzo-soprano) that had so impressed Brahms in the first place, following this with the first set of Slavonic Dances for piano four-hands. The success of the latter work was enough in itself to make an international reputation for Dvořák. The first performance of the Stabat Mater in Prague in 1880 made an immense impression; meanwhile, the Joachim Quartet took on his chamber music, and his work was also coming to be known in America, especially in New York as well as in Cincinnati and Saint Louis, with their big settlements of music-loving Germans.
The success of the Stabat Mater was nothing less than sensational when Joseph Barnby introduced it in London in 1883, and in that peculiarly English world of choir festivals Dvořák became beloved and revered like no composer since Mendelssohn. The Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to conduct concerts in London in 1884. It was in response to the success of the Symphony No. 6 in D major, then known as “No. 1,” that he was immediately invited to write a new symphony for performance the following year. That would be the present work.
The invitation set him afire with ambition. “Just now,” he wrote to his friend Judge Antonín Rus on December 22, 1884, “a new symphony (for London) occupies me, and wherever I go I think of nothing but my work, which must be capable of stirring the world, and God grant me that it will!” He had been excited by Brahms’s newest symphony, the Third, which he had gone to Berlin to hear in January 1884 and which gave him a new standard to shoot for. Moreover, as a letter to Simrock in February 1885 tells us, he was spurred by Brahms’s verbal exhortations as well as by his direct musical example. “I have been engaged on a new symphony for a long, long time; after all it must be something really worthwhile, for I don’t want Brahms’s words to me, ‘I imagine your symphony quite different from this one [No. 6 in D],’ to remain unfulfilled.”
A scan of the Brahms correspondence has failed to uncover any comment on the Seventh Symphony, but it is impossible to believe that Brahms was disappointed. The new work could hardly have been more different from its sunshine-and-blue-skies predecessor. For in the early 1880s, Dvořák was at a point of crisis. His mother, to whom he was close, had died in December 1882, and he was in distress over the steady deterioration of the mental health of Bedřich Smetana, the founding father of modern Czech music. (Smetana was released by death in May 1884.) Not least, Dvořák was perplexed about his own life. Being swept along on waves of success also meant being under growing pressure, internal and external, to consolidate his position and turn from a provincial composer into an international one. But “international” really meant Austro-German, and the idea was for him to move to Vienna, to write operas on German texts, and to quit pestering Simrock about having his first name appear as “Ant.,” if not actually “Antonín,” rather than the German “Anton.” It was hard for him to say “no” to the well-intended advice of people like Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick; on the other hand, to deny his own ethnic and linguistic heritage was impossible for someone who identified himself so closely as did Dvořák with the rising tide of Bohemian nationalism. It added up to a troubled time for him. It was during this period and in this mood that he wrote his two masterpieces in tragedy, the F minor piano trio, Opus 65, and the D minor symphony.
Dvořák makes his way into the music with a theme as dark and under cover as it is determined. And before the violas and cellos even articulate that idea, a low D pedal (horns, drums, and basses) has already done its work in defining the atmosphere. Dvořák’s biographer John Clapham has published a fascinating account of the sketches of the D minor symphony in which he points out that it took Dvořák several attempts before he arrived at the details that contribute so powerfully to the oppressive atmosphere, sharpening the rhythm of the upbeats, for example, and adding the shuddering halt on the diminished-seventh chord in the theme’s sixth measure.
The clarinets continue the thought plaintively. The harmony is as unyielding as in the first phrase, but the tough tonic pedal has given way to the question mark of the ever-ambiguous diminished seventh. Characteristically, Dvořák includes a wealth of thematic ideas. Quickly he builds to a climax, withdraws for a moment into a pastoral conversation of horn and oboe, then works up to an even more intense crisis (always with the new, sharper version of the upbeat as motor) before settling into a new key, B‑flat major, and delighting us with a wonderfully spacious melody. It is one from the house of Brahms: specifically, it reminds us of the cello solo in the Piano Concerto No. 2, first performed in 1881 and published in 1882, and of the song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer,” yet to come.
This is expanded magnificently until the rich exposition comes to a close poised on the dominant of D minor, just as though there were going to be a formal repeat. Instead, the music plunges—pianissimo but with great intensity—into the development. This moves swiftly and masterfully, covering much territory. The recapitulation is tautly condensed—it even begins in mid-paragraph—and only in the dying-away coda does the music draw more leisurely breaths. D minor is a key that has a special sound, partly because all the string instruments have open strings tuned to D and A. It also has a special set of sonorous and expressive associations, defined by a whole series of works including Mozart’s D minor piano concerto and Don Giovanni, Beethoven’s and Bruckner’s Ninth symphonies, and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Tragic Overture. This first movement is very much and very consciously part of this D minor tradition.
The Adagio is, with those in his F minor trio and G major string quartet, Opus 106, one of Dvořák’s most searching. Here, too, there is astonishing richness and variety of material, presented lucidly, with a profoundly original sense of order, and gloriously scored. The most personal paragraph is one in which a reiterated phrase with a melancholy falling seventh in pianissimo strings is punctuated by pairs of soft chords for woodwinds and pizzicato strings. This I take to be an obeisance to a similar moment in the Brahms Third Symphony, a piece that, as mentioned earlier, was a significant inspiration to Dvořák.
The scherzo moves in flavorful cross-rhythms, the swinging theme in violins and violas falling into three broad beats per measure, while the cello-and-bassoon tune is in two. It is all force and energy, after which the Trio brings contrast in every aspect, by being in a major key, by its gentleness, and by the skillful and evocative blurring of outlines and textures. The Trios in Dvořák’s scherzos are usually picturesque in a folksy sort of way; this one is out of the ordinary not merely for its cunningly clouded sound but also in being so richly developed and extended. In most ways this scherzo is a moment of relaxation after the densely composed, attention-demanding two movements that precede it, but the coda reminds us that the context is one of tragedy.
The finale also presents a wealth of themes, from the first impassioned gesture, through the dark that follows immediately, to the confidently striding A major tune for the cellos. The development is ample and rises to a tempestuous climax. The taut recapitulation leads to a solemn peroration in D major, the remarkable harmonies at the end suggesting that Dvořák was invoking the close of Schubert’s great F minor Fantasy for piano four-hands.
Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.
The first American performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 was given by Theodore Thomas with the New York Philharmonic on January 8, 1886.
The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 were given by Wilhelm Gericke on October 22 and 23, 1886.