Composed: 1884
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

 

During his life Antonín Dvorˇák enjoyed the lofty position of a widely accepted, honored, and revered composer. After he died, however, he went through a ratings slump. In more recent years, though, the tide has turned, he has come into his own again, and his earlier elevated stature seems to have taken solid hold.

One of the works that has put to rest any reservations about Dvorˇák’s stature and has defined absolutely his mastery is his Seventh Symphony. It is the most dramatic and austere of his nine symphonies, but even so, no traumas, no breast-beating, no neurotic despair are there to tell of a soul tortured or a psyche frenzied. Rather, this is superbly adjusted, intensely expressive music in which melodies appear in almost limitless supply, music fired by a vigorous and/or lyrical Bohemian spirit, warmed by tenderness but never smothered by sentimentality. Dvorˇák’s command of orchestration and of classical form completes the case for this work’s very high position in the symphonic realm. “My new symphony,” Dvorˇák wrote to a friend during the creative period of 1884, “must be such as to make a stir in the world.” Composed on a commission from the London Philharmonic Society, the work indeed makes a stir, from its ominous opening on through the rhapsodic contrasts of its four movements.

That opening has a stern, steely-eyed gaze, as a sinister motif is spoken in a low unison whisper by violas and cellos amidst rumblings by basses and timpani. This brief idea and the stabbing three-note figure that punctuates it are laden with developmental possibilities, and Dvorˇák seizes upon them masterfully throughout the movement. The lyrical second theme provides a strong contrast, and the remainder of the movement ebbs and erupts, erupts and ebbs. As the movement ends, the main theme, tossed from instrument to instrument, is finally depleted, shorn of its strength.

Whereas the first movement’s ambiance is one of sobriety and tension relieved at times by gentle lyricism, the Adagio second movement’s unfoldment is the reverse, its original songfulness wrenched by powerful dramatic outbursts. How deceptive is the almost folkishly simple clarinet melody that opens the movement. There is no portent here of the drama that soon enough emerges.

The Scherzo third movement is the Slavonic Dvorˇák all the way, beginning with a lilting, dance-like theme and countermelody shaping an irresistibly folkish pas de deux, on to a pastoral middle section replete with bird calls.

The wonderfully varied landscape of the final movement, permeated almost completely by dark-hued passion, is at the very end brightened by major-key sunlight, bursting through the D-minor tensions to proclaim a kind of Beethovenian salvation. The procedure is as startling for its suddenness as it is convincing in its utter sincerity.

– Orrin Howard