Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
Dvořák began his Seventh Symphony in November of 1884 in response to a commission from the London Philharmonic Society. “He was not unprepared,” according to Dvořák scholar Otakar Šourek, “for the new symphony had been maturing in his consciousness since he had become acquainted with Brahms’ Third Symphony, the first performance of which, at the end of 1883, awakened in him ambition to create a work of similar scope and worth.” 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-Dvořák hallmark, is on display here, 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 successfully conducted the premiere at London’s St. James Hall, with one reviewer comparing it to Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony in dramatic impact, another likening Dvořák’s effect on the English public to that previously achieved only by Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. Dvořák’s publisher, Simrock, wanted the work but complained that “your larger works do not sell well enough to supply sufficient profit.” Simrock offered a sum equivalent to $500 today for the Symphony, if the composer would also include a second set of Slavonic Dances, the first set, Op. 46 (1878), having made a mint for the publisher and little more than lunch money for the composer. Simrock’s offer elicited the following response:
“(1) If I let you have the symphony for 3,000 marks, I shall have lost 3,000 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 gold mine; “If we were to look at this matter from a commonsense point of view, it would lead to the conclusion that I should write no symphonies, no big vocal works, 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, as an artist who wants to amount to something, I simply cannot do it!”
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,
The composer had made his point: Simrock paid 6,000 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 completed the Op. 72 dances, for which he was handsomely paid as well.