THE EARLY DVORAK SYMPHONIES: A Trial Run or a Complement to the Famous Three?

Dvorak’s ‘Early’ Symphonies have a checkered past, even though the final three (Nos.7-9) are considered cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire.  I’ve always found it curious that an audience that embraced one (much less three) symphonies by a great composer wouldn’t be the least bit curious to hear the works that came before, particularly when Dvorak wrote six (!) symphonies that lie in relative neglect.  What separates the ‘early’ symphonies of Dvorak from the three late masterpieces?  Did it truly take him six attempts to hammer out a competent symphonic language?  Conventional wisdom would tell us that, yes, the first six are so-called apprentice attempts, useful for scholars but not the lay audience, that simply wants tunes and dance rhythms in equal measure.  However, conventional wisdom, particularly when it comes to art, is usually wrong.  The Dvorak symphony cycle is (I feel) the most consistently rewarding 19th century symphonic cycle after Beethoven, rivaling for sheer variety and gusto even the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner (Schubert’s are a near rival, though the early symphonies lack variety for all their charm).  From the very beginning, there is a clear voice that speaks Dvorak’s language, even if the earliest works are a tad verbose and under the spell of Beethoven.  Yet the mastery of form is there, the creativity, and the jaw-dropping orchestration.  Almost every one of these symphonies could be a “greatest hits” piece of a lesser composer, and Nos. 3, 5 and 6 in particular are masterpieces that by some fluke of fate escaped the orchestral canon.  Luckily, in our age of cheap music downloads you can sample these works at leisure, deciding for yourself if history has been unjust to Dvorak’s symphonic legacy.  As you do, here’s a brief rundown of each piece and its chief points of interest (click below to read about them...) 

Symphony No.1 C minor “Bells of Zlonice”: Sadly, this work was never even published by Dvorak.  Entered into an orchestral contest, it not only failed to win but was promptly filed away, and even Dvorak washed his hands of it.  Because of this, we have the work as it was originally written, without revisions or an editor’s hand (though many conductors shorten it, particularly the lengthy first movement).  I’ve always adored this symphony for its young man’s aspirations and its fresh-faced heroic attitude.  It probably is a tad long, and it certainly tries to mimic Beethoven throughout, yet even at this early stage, Dvorak cannot help being Dvorak (or perhaps, speaking with a Czech accent).  The symphony opens with a stern series of horn calls, followed by a brooding theme on the low strings (maybe a touch reminiscent of a similar moment at the beginning of the Seventh Symphony?).  A whirlwind development follows, full of great melodic and orchestral interest.  The slow movement is particularly beautiful, with its heartfelt, lonely oboe theme, vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven.  However, the most unique movement is the third, which sounds like a trademark Dvorakian furiant, which often masquerades as a scherzo in Dvorak’s works.  It’s so memorable and hummable that you’ll repeat it over and over again (and indeed, Dvorak used parts of this movement in subsequent works).  The finale is a grand affair, parts of it suggesting the “bells of Zlonice,” the city the symphony was apparently written in.  On first blush, this movement—and the symphony as a whole—puts one in mind of Beethoven’s 5th and 6th, occasionally of Mozart’s late symphonies, and maybe a touch of Schubert’s 9th.  In short, it’s an astounding first effort, and deserves to be heard, if not in concert, than at least in your household—but opt for the complete version as played by Kertesz and others (Kubelik, in a fine version, cuts several minutes from the first and last movements, which is a shame). 

Symphony No.2 in B flat major, Op.2: The low opus number is somewhat hilarious given the sheer length and ambition of this major symphonic work.  Of course, Dvorak had written quite a bit of music before he got around to publishing any, including the wonderful—if forgotten—First Symphony.  In many ways, the Second Symphony is cut from the same cloth as the First, but with a difference: it’s more consistent in theme, more pastoral, and more pungent.  To me, this is his first symphony that screams “Czech” in every movement.  Each movement is quite long, and its subtlety takes some practice—it’s not a “grab you at the first listen” symphony.  The first movement opens with a languid theme that immediate gets agitated, almost bursting into a Slavonic Dance.  In many ways, I hear echoes of those dances, as well as some of his overtures (Carnival, In Nature’s Realm) in this movement.  The slow movement is tremendous in  imparting an atmosphere of melancholy, calm, and even a touch of dread.  I always think of it as the “Marooned Adagio,” since it reminds me of a painting I once saw of a pirate who had been marooned on an island: clutching his knees, he sits in despair as he watches the ship vanish into the mists.  That’s how the work opens, with a lamenting bass line punctuated by sobbing oboes.  The mood lightens somewhat as the movement continues, but Dvorak keeps the general character throughout.  The Scherzo is again the highlight, full of ingenious touches and more than a casual reminiscence of Mendelssohn.  The finale, too, is full of Mendelssohn fairy music, particularly in a passage of skittering flutes, which puts us right into the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.  These last two movements are the key to the work, and show us his increasing mastery of large forms, as well as his ability to generate interest in a series of small episodes. 

Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, op.10: This is Dvorak’s first symphonic masterpiece, and it couldn’t contrast more significantly with the previous two. For starters, he cut the length in half, giving us a relatively brief first movement, a long, extended slow movement, and a quicksilver finale (only three movements!).  It also betrays a new influence in Dvorak’s aesthetic: Richard Wagner.  Though tempered with his Czech persona, Wagner’s gods and doomed lovers seem to hover at the horizon, particularly in the gloomy, Romantic slow movement (which is the work’s highlight).  However, the opening of the symphony is one of the most magical utterances in all of 19th century music: a gentle, lilting theme sings out in strings and winds, like the first breeze of spring blown through an open window.  Every inch of this movement is vernal, speaking with complete ease and mastery.  It sounds like something organic, that was never composed but merely heard and transcribed, like folk music.  It’s extremely gorgeous music and in some ways, was never bettered in his later works.  The slow movement, though, takes this a step further.  Here the natural world meets the operatic, and the instruments seem to stage a domestic tragedy before the world.  The passion grows to almost Wagnerian heights by the end of the movement, and Dvorak piles on the orchestration, evoking the distinct shades of Bayreuth.  This is utterly and comically dismissed by the finale, which is a boisterous dance, not out of place in any of his later Slavonic Dances.  It’s a gorgeous movement, fresh-faced and ruddy-cheeked and again, almost a joke at the expense of the slow movement.  This must have seemed an audacious symphony at the time, which is why it never gained much traction; yet it’s a noble experiment in the two faces of Dvorak, which would continue to shape his evolution as a major composer by century’s end. 

Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.13: This symphony is the odd-man out of Dvorak’s symphonies, since it (a) is among his very shortest, (b) contains an astonishingly overt reference to Wagner, and (c) follows a symphonic path that proved a dead-end for Dvorak, in that it tries to apply the sound world of a Lisztian symphonic poem to a nationalist symphony.  It’s a fabulous little work, but it makes better sense when perched between Symphonies 3 and 5 then if left out alone, as any concert performance would demand.  From the beginning, you know Dvorak is up to something: it opens with a brooding bass line and a foreboding horn call before the drums and strings come in with a more triumphant tune.  This brief, yet varied movement is gorgeous: the heroic/tragic theme sounds very Lisztian (like Mazeppa), yet the secondary theme is all Dvorak—a dew-drop pastoral theme full of yearning with polka-like syncopations from the orchestra.  It’s very cleverly done, yet so unlike what we heard in the opening movements of Symphonies 1 and 2.  The second movement, however, is the true show-stopper, and not in the way you might expect.  In fact, it’s almost embarrassing in how blatantly Dvorak quotes Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture—almost note for note.  Did they have irony in the mid-19th century?  If we can assume so, I almost feel that Dvorak is combining homage with humor, imagining how a provincial folk band might play Wagner’s famous piece.  Of course, it’s not bumpkinish or off-kilter, and the variations on this theme are quite beautifully done.  Yet Czech intonations seem to creep in toward the end, and the apotheosis is hardly Wagnerian.  It’s hard to know what to make of this movement, and for this reason alone most conductors (and audiences) probably steer clear of it.  The sense of confusion is swept aside by the brisk, defiant scherzo, which starts out dramatically (like the opening movement), only to be replaced by the most rustic, Slavonic trio imaginable.  It almost seems out of place in the symphony (and indeed, it was composed much earlier) and evokes a question that many critics posed to Haydn a hundred years earlier: can a peasant dance really camp out in a Germanic symphony?  Whatever the answer, it’s hilarious and wonderful music throughout.  The finale is wonderful and also eccentric: it’s almost monothematic, with an angry, driving theme that is repeated over and over again.  A second theme of sentimental beauty intrudes briefly like an operatic aria, but then it’s back to the theme—da-da-DA-da-da, etc.  Critics are not always kind to this movement, nor to the symphony itself, yet its a noble experiment in what makes a symphony, and a final chapter in Dvorak’s admiration of Wagner and Liszt (hear the fourth movement below...)

Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op.76:  Opus 76?!  How do we go from Op.14 to Op. 76 in one symphony?  We might assume Dvorak gave up writing symphonies for a time and turned to other forms (and we would assume wrong).  Instead, he wrote it soon after the Fourth but it was published much later at the height of his fame, and passed off as a “mature” symphony—which indeed it is.  When symphonies 1-4 were unknown, No.5 became his “Third” symphony, with Symphony No.6 as the First (see below), the Seventh as the Second, the Eighth as the Fourth, and the Ninth as the Fifth (you can still find old records and CDs with these numberings).  No one raised an eyebrow when the Fifth followed the Seventh, since the same language is there: this is the Dvorak of the last Three Symphonies, though much more subtle and pastoral.  Indeed, this symphony can be considered his “Pastoral” symphony, though it contains the essence of Dvorak, particularly the one we find in his chamber works.  It opens with a lazy, bucolic motif, which quickly builds up into a triumphant theme...yet this immediately settles down into a quiet, romantic backdrop.  It’s a remarkable movement, full of sentiment without ever really getting worked up.  There’s an almost total absence of symphonic drama in the first three movements, though the fourth takes up the standard, at least for a time.  The second movement contains one of his trademark haunting themes, exhibited beautifully in the cellos.  When the strings take it up, the effect is magical—only Dvorak could really pull this off.  A dancing, yet subdued scherzo follows, light years away from the buffoonery of the Fourth Symphony, yet with a similar sense of fun.  The fourth movement opens with a defiant motif in the low strings, which Dvorak develops in a manner similar to the finale of the Fourth Symphony.  Indeed, in some ways you could consider it a re-write of that symphony, as if Dvorak liked the idea but not the application.  It’s much more successful and exciting in this guise, though not surprisingly critics have often found fault with it.  However, along with the Third Symphony (but even more so), this is one of his first symphonic masterpieces.  Having written this there was no turning back. 

Symphony No.6 in D major, Op.60: As much as I love the previous symphonies, this one is slightly a breed apart, and can stand toe-to-toe with anything his symphonic contemporaries wrote.  Interestingly, as Nos.3 and 4 court the influence of Wagner, No.6 (and to some extent, No.7) falls under the spell of Brahms.  Brahms was an early supporter of Dvorak and a staunch friend, to the point that Dvorak often despaired of former’s atheism (how could Brahms go to hell?—wouldn’t he meet Wagner?).  The Sixth Symphony is often compared to Brahms’s Second, and indeed, there are many connections.  Yet whereas Brahms’ piece is a darkly-hued, pastoral work, Dvorak’s is all light and air, yet full of earthy energy.  To me, Brahms is always an old man in his symphonies, looking back at life with affection, regret, and defiance.  Dvorak almost always lacks the defiance, and the Sixth Symphony is written by a man of the people in his element—Nature itself.  The first movement opens gloriously, with horns answered by the orchestra in a kind of glowing sunrise.  Beautiful melodies topple over one another, making a dramatic argument without pathos (he would save that for No.7).  The slow movement is Dvorak’s best, even taking Nos.7-9 into account.  It sounds so simple and natural that it belies the incredible compositional skill required to write it into existence.  It’s a heartwarming lullaby, consoling and affirming, blazing with orchestral fire.  This movement reminds me of Beethoven, perhaps a major-key variation on the famous second movement of the Seventh Symphony, or of the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement.  After this, Dvorak pulls out all the stops for the Scherzo, a foot-stomping spectacle which truly evokes the term furiant.  Everything about this screams “Slavonic Dance No.13,” though it puts most of the previous dances in the shade.  Yet for me, the highlight is the Finale, probably the first time when Dvorak really nails a Finale with symphonic weight and utterance.  It begins almost exactly like Brahms’ Second, quietly and lethargically, only to become swept up in its own blood and thunder.  Yet it’s not Wagnerian heroics on display, but simple human life and gusto.  It ends with a tremendous fugue which seems to state that Dvorak had, at long last, arrived as a major composer.  Not surprisingly this work became his official First Symphony, the calling card to every conductor and orchestra throughout Europe.  No wonder New York soon hired him to write the first “American” symphony for others to follow (his Ninth).  Hear the third movement below...

There are many versions of these early symphonies available, including fine versions from Kertesz, Kubelik, Guzenhauser, Jarvi, and others.  However, I strongly recommend the first account recorded in the late 60’s by Istvan Kertesz, the great Hungarian conductor.  He resurrected the early symphonies from their untimely grave and made everyone reconsider the traditional numbering—there was a new 1-6 in town.  The London SO plays with fire and commitment under him, and every note is burnished with gold.  The sound, too, is extraordinary for an ADD recording and offers a beautiful sonic profile.  Explore these early symphonies and challenge your view of Dvorak as a three-symphony composer; of, if you don’t know his works too well, start with No.1 and work your way forward, marveling in the quick (but eccentric) education of a young man learning his craft.  


  1. Fantastic read. Thank uou. I concur with your thoughts on the 60s Kertesz set. The newly remastered 22 bit version sounds extraordinary for its age.

    1. Thanks so much for reading! Yes, I have many versions of these symphonies, but I always go back to--and remain the longest in--Kertesz's version. His 3rd is sheer poetry. I've written about some other symphonic cycles throughout my blog--Prokofiev, Sibelius, Bax--with more to come.


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