The night is about to end, you can already see the proverbial silver lining on the horizon. In a few minutes the sun will rise and another day will begin. It will be up to you to make the best of it, but the majestic beginning of Anton Dvorak’s Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, op. 4 is an excellent force multiplier. The first movement is energetic and energizing and by the second movement you are in full swing. Guaranteed or you will get your money back!
Are you an attentive listener? Can you immerse yourself into that first movement and let go all other thoughts? Dvorak’s musical language – does it ring any bell? Wagner! Wagner. The time when Dvorak wrote this incredible symphony (1865) coincides with the peak of his interest in Wagner’s musical language. It is a very early work. Dvorak was 25 when he wrote it and apparently intended to destroy the score. Legend has it that his flat mate kept the manuscript in exchange for money that he had borrowed Dvorak, money that the composer could not pay back. Dvorak reworked the score in 1887, the premiere in Prague took place a year later.
From Rossini to Wagner
In 1865 Dvorak survived financially by giving piano lessons to the daughters of a goldsmith. He was also a member of the Provisional Theatre orchestra, the first Czech theatre. It had opened it’s doors in 1862 and Dvorak was the principal violist of the orchestra. As such he came into contact with the music of the Italian operas, with Mozart’s stage music as well as with the latest compositions of Czech and Russian composers like Smetana or Glinka. He absorbed a broad spectrum of compositional possibilities and according to Oxford Music Online “setting out from the example of Mozart and […] Beethoven, he progressively extended his musical language by way of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner to the state of composition in his own time. “
About the years preceding the composition of the second symphony, Dvorak said: “Not that I was unable to produce music, but I had not technique enough to express all that was in me. I had ideas but I could not utter them perfectly”. Dvorak’s Wagner studies are a landmark in the composer’s development. From here on, he was on his own. From here on he would develop his very personal musical style, a style that would lead to several distinct musical idioms, reflecting the musical influences he was exposed to until his death in 1904.
Bridging Romanticism and folk music
The symphony in B flat is traditional in its structure – four movements: allegro con moto, poco adagio, scherzo (allegro con brio), finale (allegro con fuoco). The language however is very colourful, evocative, inspired both by the late German romanticism and traditional Czech folk music. The first movement is merely the introduction to lyrical second movement: exuberance is followed by a peaceful, almost meditative mood. The scherzo is as one would expect playful, full of joy and optimism. The finale starts with a tension building introduction, dynamic, fast paced but still melodious – with fire! At the end: triumph! Now tell me, if this doesn’t kick-start your day, what does?
Dvorak’s nine symphonies have been recorded by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Rafael Kubelik and I can warmly recommend the whole set. We certainly will come back to Dvorak in the future. He is just too good.
© Charles Thibo