“The reader is the prey and your intro is the bait.” How often have I heard this? While I learned the journalistic tradecraft, my older colleagues would say: “The reader has a very limited attention span. The first two sentences must either inform him in a very condensed way or capture his imagination, otherwise he will stop reading.” How true – and at times I struggle to abide by this advice and to find a catchy first paragraph for my weekly posts. But you are still with me, so this one wasn’t too bad.
Anton Dvorak – here, the name should keep you glued to this post! – wrote an early symphony, whose first movement immediately captured my imagination. I got hooked and have listened to it now for many, many times. His second symphony, written in 1865 in B flat major (Op. 4) starts on a, let’s say, pastoral theme. A slow melody, calm, gentle, comforting, and the pictures I associate with it are a softly rolling, green landscape, peasants going about their business, peace, harmony, innocence.
As you may know by now I live in a region that definitely qualifies as Arcadian. On one of those clear winter mornings I drove to town, the sky had taken a deep blue colour, the fields were covered with frost, a delicate white veil – very poetic. And I listened to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 2. “Peace on earth”, I said to myself. “I am blessed to catch a glimpse of this natural beauty and to have time to enjoy this delightful music.”
I am not aware that Dvorak had any specific programme in mind when he set out to write this piece. Conventional (musicologists’) wisdom links the symphony to Dvorak’s unanswered love to his pupil and colleague, Josefina Cermakova, and how the composer overcame this depressing time. At the same time the same musicologist praise the light and sparkling character of the symphony. How does that fit together?
Themes from folk culture
However there is a consensus that Dvorak was keen to use thematic material stemming from Czech folk culture, and this becomes apparent in all four movements. Variations of peasants’ dances and songs are a among the most beautiful moments of any performance of this symphony and perhaps their rural origin conjured the Arcadian impressions that I had and still have when I listen to the recording by Berlin Philharmonic under Rafael Kubelik.
The work is scored for an orchestra of two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. Dvorak wrote it within three months and since he could not pay for the binding of the score, it remained a manuscript for many years. A friend who had advanced the money to have it bound, kept it locked away as a security, when Dvorak voiced his intention to destroy it. It saw its premiere only in 1888 in Prague after a revision by the composer.
© Charles Thibo