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Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 2, 1959, with Arturo Basile conducting
Dvorák began his Seventh Symphony in November of 1884 in response to a commission from the London Philharmonic Society, which had made the composer an honorary member earlier that year. During the four years that separate this work from its predecessor, the Symphony in D major, Op. 60, Dvorák produced two of his finest chamber works (the String Quartet in C, Op. 61, and the F-minor Piano Trio, Op. 65) as well as the delectably spooky cantata, The Spectre’s Bride. “The commission from London did not find him unprepared,” according to Dvorák scholar Otakar S?ourek, “for the new symphony had long been maturing in his consciousness, especially since he had become acquainted with Brahms’ Third Symphony, the first performance of which, at the end of 1883, had made such a strong impression as to awaken in him the ambition to create a work of similar scope and worth. The request from the London Philharmonic provided a welcome pretext for the early realization of a work which would sooner or later have been written.” (S?ourek fails to mention that Brahms had in fact played portions of his Third Symphony on the piano for Dvorák prior to its first performance.)
In December of 1884, Dvorák wrote to his friend Antonín Rus, “I am now fully occupied with the new symphony for London, and wherever I go I have nothing else in mind but this work, which must be such as to shake the world. And with God’s help it will be so!” The work was finished by the following March, and the composer — seldom inhibited about praising his own creations — noted, “I am satisfied. England will take new notice of me now.” He was referring to the fact that while England had been heaping praise on the composer for some years, it was primarily for his choral music.
The present D-minor Symphony (there is an earlier symphony, Op. 13, in the same key) is unique in that interior struggle, hardly a late-Dvorák hallmark, is palpable here. And it is consciously on display, fulfilling his claim that he was “not only a national composer.” The D-minor Symphony, with a respectful nod to the aforementioned Third Symphony of Brahms, suggests a milieu more languorously Viennese than ebulliently (folksily) Bohemian.
On April 22, 1885, the composer conducted the premiere of his new Symphony at St. James’s Hall in London. It was a tremendous success, with one reviewer comparing it to Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony in its dramatic impact and likening Dvorák’s effect on the English public to that previously achieved only by Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn.
Dvorák’s publisher, Simrock of Berlin, wanted the work but complained that “your larger works do not sell well enough to supply sufficient profit.” Simrock offered a sum equivalent today to about $500 for the Symphony if the composer would also include a second set of Slavonic Dances, the first set of which, Op. 46 (1878), had made a mint for the publisher, but little more than lunch money for the composer. By 1885, though, Dvorák’s fame had spread throughout Europe and his pockets were filled. Simrock’s parsimonious offer elicited the following response from the composer:
“(1) If I let you have the symphony for 3000 marks, I shall have lost about 3000 marks, because other firms offer me double that amount...
“(2) Although such big works do not at once achieve the material success we would wish, nevertheless the time may come that your patience will be rewarded; and
“(3) Please remember that in my Slavonic Dances you have found a mine not lightly to be underestimated;
“(4) If we were to look at this matter from a common-sense point of view, it would lead to the conclusion that I should write no symphonies, no big vocal works, and no other instrumental music, only now and then a couple of lieder and piano pieces [the Slavonic Dances were originally for piano, four-hands].... Well, speaking as an artist who wants to amount to something, I simply cannot do it!”
Tough language from the God-fearing, ex-butcher’s apprentice from the Bohemian provinces! But the letter concludes on a wistful, almost imploring note:
“Remember, I pray you, that I am a poor artist and the father of a family, so do not wrong me.
“With warm greetings, your sincere friend,
— Ant. Dvorák”
The composer made his point: Simrock paid 6000 marks for the Symphony, with the request for another set of Slavonic Dances, if the composer were so inclined. He was, and within a year he completed the Op. 72 dances, and was handsomely paid for them as well.
— Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.