Program Notes

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88

Antonín Dvořák

Although Antonín Dvořák wrote nine symphonies, the last five were the only ones published in his lifetime, and the Eighth Symphony was long known as “No. 4” in its order of publication. In the 1950s, the current numbering—based on order of composition, rather than publication—came into use, and the G Major Symphony was reborn as No. 8. Dvořák’s father was the butcher of a tiny town on the banks of the Moldau River about ten miles north of Prague, and Dvořák’s music is often said to capture the essence of this rural upbringing. (He kept these simple tastes when he moved to New York in 1892; he was a frequent visitor to Central Station and the harbor and reportedly had an impressive command of the train schedule.) The G Major Symphony is an excellent example of Dvořák’s ability to bring the countryside and its people to life.

As he was to do several years later when composing the Ninth Symphony (From the New World), which was written amidst verdant Iowa farmland, Dvořák composed his Symphony No. 8 in relative seclusion—this time at his country home in his native Czechoslovakia. Unabashedly tuneful and irresistibly cheerful, the symphony’s casual grace was paralleled by its reported ease of composition; as Dvořák remarked at the time, “melodies simply pour out of me.” Indeed, Dvořák completed the symphony in a remarkably short period, finishing all but the orchestration in less than a month. The first symphony he had written in over four years, the Eighth was special to Dvořák. As he once said of the work, “It is different from the others, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.”

As Dvořák suggests, the first movement, marked Allegro con brio, defies expectations. Although the piece is written in G major, the opening theme is in G minor]. Dvořák brings it back at key structural points, gradually redefinining the theme as an introduction rather than a primary melody. Numerous catchy tunes pervade the movement, prompting Leoš Janácek to say of the work, “You’ve scarcely got to know one figure before a second one beckons with a friendly nod, so you’re in a state of constant but pleasurable excitement.” Following an Adagio consisting of shifting moods, keys, and colors, the lush, waltz-like Allegretto grazioso recalls similar movements of Tchaikovsky or Brahms. A solo trumpet heralds the concluding Allegro ma non troppo, its call gradually revealed as the opening phrase of the main theme, first presented in the cellos and then wildly transformed in the variations that follow. Taking listeners on a journey through a range of moods that almost recall his Slavonic Dances, Dvořák arrives briefly at a bucolic peace that abruptly gives way to a joyful end.

Program notes by
Jennifer More
© 2024

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