Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 4, 1978, Calvin Simmons conducting
About this Piece
By the mid-1870s, all of the elements that form the mature Dvorák began taking proper shape and perspective: the lyric melodies in almost limitless supply; the fiery Bohemian spirit that charges the musical landscapes with the brightness of healthy exuberance and vigor; the expressiveness that is warmed by tenderness but never smothered by sentimentality; and a masterly command of orchestration and of the Classical forms into which he poured his musical substance.
The Sixth Symphony was the harbinger of the composer's maturity. Dvorák wrote this D-major Symphony to keep a promise he had made to conductor Hans Richter, who, in 1879, had given the first Viennese performance - and a very successful one - of the Third Slavonic Rhapsody. The composer was not so quick to set his hand to the task, but when he did, in August of 1880, the work was done in less than two months. Richter was overjoyed with it, but some of the Vienna Philharmonic players, who had a voice in selecting repertory, did not share the conductor's enthusiasm. Richter, unable to override their objections, was thus prevented from giving the premiere of the work he godfathered. The first performance took place in Prague on March 25 1881; when Richter finally had the chance to conduct it, it was not in Vienna but in London the following year.
The Symphony is in the same D-major key as the Second Symphony (1877) of Brahms, a work Dvorák must have found an irresistible model. Yet, if in the outer movements especially, Dvorák enfolds us in Brahms-like melodic contours and rouses us with some of the German composer's cross rhythms, he also conjures surprisingly strong Beethovenian imagery, both of spirit and design. For example, listening to the oft-repeated rhythmic motifs that help propel the first movement, one is taken out to Beethoven's Pastoral forest.
The first movement of Dvorák's Sixth is a place of large, sometimes violent, contrasts, as when the exceedingly simple and folkish main theme grows, after just 50 measures, to grand proportions. As with all of Dvorák's works, this movement is extravagantly melodic; as with his best works, it is expertly crafted and imaginatively set forth, nowhere more so than in the mysterious beginning of the development section, which is based on fragments of the main theme, and the last measures, where dreamy reflections of the same theme are routed by a brief, explosive reference to an originally gentle secondary theme.
The extended Adagio second movement is in large part based upon the main melody - given in violins after being first intimated in a brief, atmospheric introduction - and is lavishly Romantic in its pursuit of poetic allusion. Sentiment, dramatic outburst, variegated orchestral color, and an abiding sense of grace combine to suffuse the movement with a remarkable atmosphere of reality and unreality.
The former quality - reality - comes to the fore in the Scherzo-Furiant, the only overtly folk-like music in the work, with its energetic main theme alternately emerging in duple and triple meter (the time signature is 3/4), and a slower-paced trio songfully contrasting with the surrounding theme.
The finale of the Symphony, expansive in both quantity and range of expressiveness, opens in a manner strongly reminiscent of the corresponding movement of the Brahms Second Symphony. It then proceeds to move in high style and spirit through a vividly developed musical landscape that is as distinctively Dvorákian as it is Bohemian - in the best sense of both.
Orrin Howard served the Philharmonic for more than 20 years as Director of Publications and Archives.