Dvořák's Symphony No.8
Presentation of the concert
SMETANA, Vltava (The Moldau)
BRUCH, Violin Concerto No. 1
DVOŘÁK, Symphony No. 8
Thanks to virtuoso writing for the soloist, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – the best known of the composer’s concertos for the instrument – is a true gift for violinists. It is performed here by the young Norwegian Vilde Frang, winner of a number of awards, who has enjoyed a brilliant international career for several years.
Also on the program is Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, one of his most serene scores, and Smetana’s famous Moldau (“Vltava”), whose charms induced filmmaker Terence Malick to use it in The Tree of Life (2011 winner of the Palme d’or in Cannes).
Not only were the lives of Smetana and Dvořák, born in Bohemia less than twenty years apart, closely intertwined; they were friends as well. Smetana conducted the Overture to the second version of Dvořák’s opera King and Charcoal Burner in 1874. Throughout their careers, each in his own way infused his music with the soul and spirit of the land where they lived and as it lived in them. Also on the program is one of the most beloved violin concertos in the repertory, composed by the contemporaneous Max Bruch – heartfelt music of exquisite lyricism.
Born in Litomyšl, Bohemia, March 2, 1824
Died in Prague, May 12, 1884
Despite the influence of Liszt, Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz, Smetana personified the national spirit of his homeland as did few others. As father of the Czech school, between 1874 and 1879 he composed Má Vlast (My Country), a cycle of six symphonic poems that depict historical events or geographical features of Bohemia. Adolf Čech led the first performed on November 5, 1882 in Prague. Vltava, name of the longest river in the Czech Republic (it flows into the Elbe), is better known by its German title Der Moldau. It remains the composer’s most famous work.
The score opens with an evocation of the two springs that serve as the river’s source. Eventually we hear the flowing main theme. The music follows the river as it passes through the woods and a hunting party, portrayed by horns. At nightfall, nymphs frolic in the waters. Watery turbulence is reflected in the orchestra as the river arrives in Prague, with its famous castle of Vyšehrad.
Born in Cologne, January 6, 1838
Died in Friedenau (near Berlin), October 2, 1920
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Prelude : Allegro moderato
Finale : Allegro energico
Highly renowned in his own time, Bruch is today remembered for basically two concerted works for violin (the Scottish Fantasy and the concerto we hear tonight) and one for cello (Kol Nidrei). The Violin Concerto No. 1 caused its composer a good deal of trouble, as he reported to his publisher: “Between 1864 and 1868, I rewrote my concerto at least half a dozen times and sought advice from any number of violinists before settling on the final form in which it is universally known and performed.” The version we hear today was first performed in January 1868 by Joseph Joachim, the work’s dedicatee, who had suggested a number of revisions.
In the first movement, two main ideas are presented and then developed: a theme supported by pizzicatos in the cellos and double basses, and a highly lyrical solo line with discreet orchestral accompaniment. The music builds to a climax, following which comes the cadenza. The tension then subsides, and the music flows without pause into the central Adagio movement, where the soloist plays almost continuously. The finale recalls certain gypsy compositions of Brahms. An infectious, dance-inspired theme is subjected to all manner of pyrotechnical displays from the soloist.
Born in Mühlhausen (near Prague), Bohemia (today Nelahozeves, Czech Republic), September 8, 1841
Died in Prague, May 1, 1904
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88
In 1875, Dvořák applied for the Austrian State Prize, granted to “poor, young, gifted artists.” In pursuit of this prize he submitted, among many other works, his Third and Fourth Symphonies. Brahms, who was on the committee, recommended the young composer to his publisher Simrock in Berlin with these words: “Dvořák writes everything: operas, symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. Here is without doubt a man of great talent.” Thus began Dvořák’s enduring international success and a lasting friendship between composers, a friendship that ended only with the death of Brahms. It was Brahms who corrected the proofs of the famous New World Symphony (No. 9).
By the mid-point of his life, Dvořák had become a composer of sufficient means to realize one of his most cherished dreams, namely to purchase a country home nestled among the verdant hills of Vysoká. In the fall of 1889 he completed his Eighth Symphony, a shining example of the genre in the late nineteenth century. Often described as pastoral, optimistic and sunny, this remains one of Dvořák’s boldest symphonic works – in choice of key (G major was seldom used for symphonies of the Romantic period) and in its constant alternation between major and minor tonalities, a procedure Dvořák particularly favored. In this symphony, Dvořák uses two instruments for only a moment each: the piccolo, which sustains a long note in unison with the flute near the beginning of the first movement, and the English horn, which has but a short melody later in the same movement, shortly after the recapitulation begins.
The symphony opens with a warmly melancholic theme in the cellos. This gives way to a chirpy theme in the flute, suggestive of the simple joys of childhood. The themes are expertly worked out, interspersed between the movement’s three main anchors (the opening cello theme). It all ends in a swirl of gaiety and mirth.
The second movement, laced with the sounds of birds and rustling brooks, paints a vivid picture of life in the countryside. It also conveys a feeling of man’s sense of wonder before nature, particularly in the use of a chorale-like motif. At one point we hear the sounds of village musicians.
The third movement is in ternary (ABA) form, with a gracious waltz framing a rustic dance. An exuberant dumka serves as a coda.
The finale opens with a trumpet fanfare recalling passages in some of Smetana’s patriotic operas. A series of variations on a folk-like theme follows. Halfway through, the proceedings are interrupted by an extended passage in the minor tonality. Into the first eight measures of the movement’s main theme Dvořák compresses the very essence of the symphony’s melodic material: an ascending triad (the flute theme from the first movement) and a descending sequence from the third movement. The final pages are infused with all the brilliance and bustle Dvořák can muster from an orchestra.
Translated by Robert Markow
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