I. Allegro maestoso II. Poco adagio III. Scherzo. Vivace IV. Allegro
Although Dvořák (1841-1904) had remarkable stamina and worked at alarming speed, his career took a while in taking off. At the age of 34, he was virtually unknown outside his home country, and had numerous orchestral and chamber music pieces behind him, as well as a great many failures. It was then that he entered a competition organised by the Vienna artistic curatorium and won the generous support of the jury, headed by such names as Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms, for three straight years. What was more important was that it led to his friendship with Brahms, while the commercial judgement of publishers rewarded him with world fame. In the 1880s, in a few short years, he conquered Vienna, Berlin and London, and while he had taken Prague by storm years earlier, he was tempted from his prestigious job as professor at the Czech Conservatoire to New York in 1892, where he was promised a twenty five fold increase in salary. As the director of the New York Conservatory, he was stunned one day when the husband of the lady president of the Conservatoire announced his company had gone bankrupt. As he was one of the most generous patrons of American music education, it meant the New York teaching assignment was over and Dvořák had to return home for good.
When he went to England in 1884 for the first time, Dvořák enjoyed enormous success with his concerts and was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Association to compose a symphony. At the time, Dvořák was planning a symphony, under the influence of Brahms’s recently premiered Third Symphony. He had already completed six symphonies and Dvořák was well aware of the most important aspects of the classical heritage, the large forms, thematic motific work and the requirements demanded by the example of Beethoven. Dvořák found all genres came easily to him, from the classical quartet to modern symphonic poems, from string trios to romantic grand operas, from folk dance music to symphonies for vast orchestras, and felt at home in all styles, be it from Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms or Bruckner. While the Sixth Symphony, which was intended for the Viennese, is permeated with allusions to Beethoven, the Seventh Symphony written for London seems more to evoke the spirit of Wagner. And naturally, the Czech melodic world. Unlike Vienna which was hardly famous for its tolerance of national aspirations among those unfortunate not to be Austrian, in London, Dvořák had nothing to fear from his nationality or that his works would ever be judged on political grounds.
The opening movement of the symphony is a grand scale sonata form. The orchestration emphasises the austere D minor tone colours: the opening theme is heard on cellos and violas over a D major pedal point, played on the timpani. The whole orchestra takes it over and develops the theme, which leads to a subsidiary theme played on woodwind. Following a text book development section, the recapitulation ensues, whereupon we hear the opening chord of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the notorious Tristan chord, in a different tonality but with identical orchestration. The miraculously orchestrated slow movement is followed by a true Central European scherzo, the mood of which was later reflected in more than one Mahler symphony. In the monumental fourth movement, there is again the fleeting appearance of the Tristan chord, this time in the original tonality, evoked by the famous cello entry from the opera. Although the symphony finishes in D major, the closing movement does not resolve its austere mood: the gloom of the chromatic melody in the final bars is not lightened just because the final chord contains a major, rather than a minor third.