Length: c. 34 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 19, 1938, Eugene Goossens conducting
“To Brahms [Dvorák] must have seemed almost the ideal musician, which Brahms himself was prevented from becoming through his being too heavily burdened with the past… Dvorák took over the heritage of absolute music quite naively, and filled its forms with an elemental music of the freshest invention, the liveliest rhythms, the finest sense of sonority – it is the most full-blooded, most direct music conceivable, without its becoming vulgar. He always drew from the sources of Slavic folk dance and folk song, much as Brahms had drawn from the German; the only difference was that with Dvorák everything was childlike and fresh, where with Brahms there was always an overtone of yearning or mystical reverence.” – Alfred Einstein, Music of the Romantic Era (1947).
Einstein may seem somewhat condescending (as Brahms himself can sound), with the “child of nature” stuff, but he does concisely state a major difference between the two composers – one which caused them to admire each other so greatly and which kept them at the same time from emulating each other. They appreciated each other’s individuality, the occasional echoes of Brahms in Dvorák’s music notwithstanding.
From the mid-1880s on, Dvorák wisely accepted invitations to conduct his own works abroad and to “appear” in all the right places – becoming a celebrity in the process. He was no longer “Brahms’ man,” as he had still largely been only a few years before, but very much his own man, in part due to the successes in England of his Stabat Mater – a positive sensation in “the land of great choirs, of mighty oratorio performances,” in Paul Stefan’s resounding words; the String Sextet; the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies; and the second set of Slavonic Dances. The British love affair with the erstwhile butcher’s apprentice from the Bohemian provinces knew no bounds, and indeed they remained faithful even after Dvorák’s name and works were subjected to the marginalization outside Eastern Europe that took place after 1919 and from which they did not emerge until after the Second World War.
The English were, in Alec Robertson’s words, “quick to welcome a composer who had got away from the conventional musical utterance of the time, while those of them who felt bound to wait until a sign had been given from on high received the imprimatur of Brahms with relief…”
Whereas the Seventh Symphony, Op. 70, had in fact been commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, which in 1884 had made Dvorák an honorary member, the G-major Symphony’s English connections are more tenuous – although it, rather than Op. 70, was at one time labeled the “English” Symphony. This is explained, although hardly validated, by the fact that the first publisher of Op. 88 was Novello of London. This came about when Simrock, Dvorák's regular publisher, had turned it down (as he had some other of the composer’s large-scale works) because he was interested in turning a quick profit, possible only with the smaller pieces with which Dvorák had earlier made his name.
Of the Symphony’s background, the great Dvorák authority Otakar Sourek (1883-1956) wrote in one of his indispensable commentaries on the composer's music: “In communion with nature [at his country home, in the Bohemian village of Vysoka], in the harmony of its voices and the pulsating rhythms of its life, in the beauty of its changing moods, thoughts came more freely to a mind that was unusually receptive at the time to all experience. Here he absorbed poetical impressions… here he rejoiced at life… and grieved at its inevitable decay…. Two characteristic qualities give the G-major Symphony the hallmark of Dvorák creation: above all, the variety of mood and the emotional eruptiveness which were so typical of [his] human and artistic personality, and which are not to be denied in this symphony… and the composer’s Slavic origins, which are manifested more completely here than in any of his other symphonies.”
The first movement opens with a broad, dignified melody proclaimed by cello, clarinet, bassoon, and horn – which becomes a sort of motto, heard again at the start of the exposition, development, and recapitulation, and before the final “eruption” of energy in the finale. This opening G-major theme is pushed aside by the solo flute’s delectable dance tune in the same key. The ensuing material unrolls with tremendous energy and considerable tension, but the mood of joyous revelry is never far from the surface.
The Adagio is a solemn idyll, whose first theme is succeeded by a broad, lyrical inspiration quite in a class with the slow movement of its predecessor, the Brahmsian Op. 70. Sourek – romantically, evocatively, as ever, observes: “It is as if the composer were resting at the foot of some old ruin whose blurred outlines rise against a sky from which daylight is rapidly fading, calling forth that strange melancholy which the contemplation of deserted human habitation and even the shadow of past glory raises in our breast.”
The third movement is in effect the scherzo of the Symphony, but in waltz time, a flowing, elegantly voluptuous creation, until its final, eruptive (again) measures, which prepare us for the finale: a raucous folk festival announced by the trumpets’ call to arms, then a full stop to recall the luscious G-major theme of the Symphony’s opening, and we are off and hectically running, via a series of boisterous variations ending in a whiplash final burst of energy.
The first performance of Op. 88 was given by the National Theater Orchestra in Prague in February of 1890, conducted by the composer, with performances following quickly – likewise under the composer – in London and Frankfurt.
– Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.