After conducting a highly successful performance of Dvořák's Third Slavonic Rhapsody (Op.45, No.3) in Vienna, Hans Richter asked the 38-year-old composer to write a symphony for him and the Vienna Philharmonic. Dvořák began working on August 27, 1880, and the composition was finished by October 15. After playing it through for Richter, Dvořák was able to report to a friend on November 23: “Richter likes the symphony immensely and embraced me after each movement, and the first performance will be on the 26th [of December].”
However, it soon turned out that there were some unexpected difficulties in the way of the performance. Richter postponed the premiere several times, citing illnesses in his family and other problems. Dvořák later found out that the real reason was the presence of strong anti-Czech feelings in Vienna. There were powerful voices at the Philharmonic Society who objected to a Czech composer's works being performed in two successive seasons, and the symphony was turned down in spite of Richter's enthusiastic advocacy. Dvořák then offered the work to his good friend Adolf Cech, who conducted the first performance in Prague on March 25, 1881. Within the next two years, the symphony was heard in Leipzig, Graz, Budapest, New York, Frankfurt, Cologne, Amsterdam, and London. In the last-mentioned city, Richter was finally able to conduct the symphony, three weeks after August Manns had given the London premiere. After such an overwhelming success, even Vienna couldn't stay behind, and the symphony was performed there on February 18, 1883.
The Sixth Symphony, which was the first of Dvořák's symphonies to be published and to become an international success, was a milestone in the composer's artistic development. It may well be here that Dvořák first achieved a complete synthesis between the Austro-German symphonic tradition and the Czech folk elements.
Through the use of a specific part-writing device called “horn fifths,” the symphony's opening motif evokes associations with nature, more specifically the forest as seen by Romantic artists. All the melodic material of the first movement is in some way related to this opening. The movement is in regular sonata form, with distinct development and recapitulation sections, but instead of modulating to the dominant key of A major as expected, the exposition chooses a softer-sounding tonality – B minor – as its tonal goal. Throughout the movement, idyllic lyrical sections alternate with more agitated and grandiose passages. Dvořák leads us to believe that he will close the movement in the lyrical mode in pianissimo when suddenly four measures of forte break in and provide a very different kind of ending.
The second-movement Adagio is based on a soulful theme, first played by the violins with a counterpoint in the oboe. Time and again, the music becomes more dramatic, but the main theme never stays away for very long and returns to close the movement in a special instrumentation (wind instruments only).
The third-movement Scherzo has the subtitle “Furiant,” a Czech folk dance characterized by an alternation of duple and triple meter. (Its best-known example comes from Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride.) Dvořák's Furiant combines this rhythmic idea with some highly chromatic harmonic writing, hardly a popular device; the symbiosis of these two disparate elements gives the movement its unique character. There is a central Trio section that is much plainer in both harmony and rhythm; the rare feature here is that part of the melody is given to the solo piccolo.
Like the opening Allegro, the Finale is based on a single melodic idea, and it has an irresistible drive that never lets up. In the concluding Presto, the rushing eighth-notes of the violins serve as counterpoint to the main theme, whose notes, in an utterly humorous gesture, are separated by rests. Finally, the brass transforms the theme into a kind of hymn, and the symphony ends with a climax, radiant and grandiose.