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About this Piece

Composed: 1875
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (1st = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 6, 1999, David Zinman conducting

Dvorák’s method was, like Smetana’s, to make the folk music of his native Bohemia (and other Slavic lands), its melodic contours and rhythms, part of his own style. This trait was, however, only beginning to become manifest in 1875, when Dvorák composed – in a mere five weeks – his Fifth Symphony: a huge advance on the densely-scored, Wagnerian Fourth Symphony, in D minor, Op. 13, which preceded it by only a year. The disparity in opus numbers, 13 and 75, is the result of the F-major Symphony not being published until 1888, 13 years after it was composed, and the publisher’s desire to market it as a “mature” composition.

Whereas brooding drama, lots of cymbal-crashing, and a few outright Wagner borrowings mark the Fourth Symphony from its outset, the F-major Symphony immediately announces itself, with a liquid song for the clarinets, as something new: lighter in sonority, more relaxed – a pastoral symphony as opposed to the heroic pretensions of its predecessor. The second theme, also in F, with its nervous bass line, is weightier, even Beethovenish. But early on here, Dvorák the burgeoning folklorist makes his presence felt with a side excursion into the furiant, a sharply accented, up-tempo Bohemian dance alternating 3/4 and 2/4 rhythms. A third theme, in B minor, resolutely enters, but by the development Dvorák seem to have lost interest in all but the opening theme. The movement ends in the gently pastoral mood with which it began.

The slow movement, in A minor, is a sweetly melancholy lyric intermezzo, its mood established by the cellos and then taken up by the violins. The theme is subsequently presented in brighter colors by flute and bassoon, with lively ornamentation by the clarinet (the entire work is a feast for players of that instrument). Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony is suggested by the bird-call trills of flute and clarinet that dot the music. The movement ends as it began, in sweetly-sad calm, before the composer’s demand for “only a very short pause and then straight on” into the first of Dvorák’s great symphonic scherzos, starting with the woodwinds’ elaboration of the final measures of the preceding andante, but considerably speeded-up.

The ensuing development is a marvel of bright orchestral color, particularly as regards the woodwind scoring. The witty trio is so richly endowed with tunes that the composer seems hesitant to return to the scherzo. Dvorák agonized over the trio’s dimensions during the years between composing the symphony and its publication, by which time he had conducted the symphony on several occasions and made minor changes in the score. But in the end he left the trio as it was in 1875, its winning excesses intact.

The finale comes as rather a shock: after all that rusticity and wit, suddenly a big, bold and decidedly serious statement, with plenty of thundering brass, that extends over 50-odd measures. After the theme has seemingly run its course, a new, much gentler melody – clarinets are always the tipoff in this symphony – more in keeping with the tenor of the three preceding movements, reduces the level of tension. The first theme reappears, to be nudged out by another of Dvorák’s lyric zingers, initially a dialogue between clarinet and violin, then taken up by flute, oboe, and violins. The three themes are developed at considerable length, with passing references as well to a theme heard in the slow movement. Finally, a quiet recollection of the symphony’s opening theme sets the stage for the rousing, brassy conclusion.

Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.