These opening bars! The massive brass fanfare. The short, sharp string accents. The gently swaying, lyrical bars that follow and seem to paraphrase a the section “From Bohemian Woods and Fields” of Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” (My Fatherland). The opening of a first movement that I will never forget. That you will never forget. The agitated drama of the first movement prompted me to pick that picture as an illustration. The ever-changing sky at sunset keeps fascinating me, especially when it takes that dark pink color, clouds glowing like a stream of magma.
This piece is the first symphony of a young composer, a composer following the path Smetana had taken, a composer making his debut in Prague, first as a performing musician, later as a composer, at a time when the cultural elite was trying to get rid of the dominance of Vienna and German music: Anton Dvorak. In 1867 Dvorak wrote Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (Op. 3) “The Bells of Zlonice” and the piece has a curious history. Dvorak had entered a musical competition and sent the score to Germany. He never saw it again. Interrogated by a student what he had done to get it back, he simply said: “What I have done? Well, I sat down and wrote another one!”
The manuscript resurfaced in 1882 when a man of the name of Rudolf Dvorak and not related to the composer found it at a bookshop and thought it funny to buy a score of a homonym. When Rudolf Dvorak died in 1923, his son consulted music scholars about it and the Dvorak expert Otakar Sourek certified that it wasn’t a fake. Its premiere took place on October 4, 1923 in Brno.
As for the title “The Bells of Zlonice”, the Dvorak biographer Guy Erismann says, Sourek found among the composer’s letters and notes a document mentioning the words “C moll Zlonicke Zvony – 65”. However neither Erismann nor I did find any passage that would resemble in any way to the sound of bells as opposed to Sergei Rachmaninov’s piece “The Bells”, where the high-pitched silver bells can be heard in the first movement. Erismann attributes the title to Dvorak’s general memories of the countryside of Zlonice, where he grew up.
Dvorak’s first symphony is a wonderful piece of music inspired by the Vienna Classics (Beethoven!) and German Romanticism (Wagner!), that exerted its spell over Dvorak at least at the beginning of his career as a composer. The national awakening in what would later become the Czechoslovak Republic inspired him to use elements of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia too.
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor has been recorded by Berlin Philharmonics under Rafael Kubelik.
© Charles Thibo