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Length: c. 34 minutes

About this Piece

Composed: 1889
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

In 1889, Dvořák had two more symphonies left to write, plus a cello concerto and a series of symphonic poems. Twelve years earlier, Brahms had championed Dvořák’s music (especially the Moravian Duets), leading to the international success of the Slavonic Dances and securing Fritz Simrock as the publisher for the Czech composer’s music. Ironically, the G-major Symphony was not published by Simrock, whose insulting offer of merely one-sixth of the fee paid for the D-minor Symphony (No. 7, Op. 70) was refused by the composer. Dvořák had recently become quite popular in England, and the G-major Symphony was published in that country by Novello in 1892.

Despite occasional dramatic outbursts, the predominant tone of the Eighth Symphony is one of bucolic euphoria, the sheer joy of being alive in a world of natural wonders. The composer’s biographer Otakar Sˇourek explains that Dvořák had “[h]is own garden in Vysoká [the state-sponsored retreat in southern Bohemia], which he loved ‘like the divine art itself’, and the fields and woods through which he wandered…. [These were] a welcome refuge, bringing him not only peace and fresh vigor of mind, but happy inspiration for new creative work. In communion with Nature, in the harmony of its voices and the pulsating rhythms of its life, in the beauty of its changing moods and aspects, his thoughts came more freely…. Here he absorbed poetical impressions and moods, here he rejoiced in life and grieved in its inevitable decay, here he indulged in philosophical reflections on the substance and meaning of the interrelation between Nature and life.”

Dvořák, it could be said, was reflecting a worldview in which “intelligent design” is the source of both wonderment and woe. The opening of the Eighth Symphony’s first movement, a serious and rather somber chorale for low strings, gives way quickly to an audacious flute solo. Without ever subduing the dramatic element, Dvořák gives free reign to the poetic side of his nature through the ensuing movements of this beloved score, from the often melancholy rhetoric of the Adagio to the folk-flavored, waltz-like Allegretto grazioso and the invigorating theme and variations of the rousing finale.

Over the course of his career, Dvořák composed in many genres, although it was as an opera composer that he most wished for success. Having earlier turned from his overtly Wagnerian sympathies to a more “absolute” formal path, Dvořák had, by the time he was about to produce his G-major Symphony, entered another new phase. In this work, he relied less on structural rigor and more on the immediate appeal of more “pictorial” elements, making eloquent use of the regular juxtaposition of contrasting sections in major and minor keys. This new approach to musical form would lead eventually to those symphonic poems that capped his orchestral catalog in 1896.

— Dennis Bade