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Composed: 1884

Length: c. 35 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

About this Piece

Even after death, it seemed that Antonín Dvořák had to struggle for recognition outside the borders of his native Bohemia. Without the help of famed musicologist Donald Tovey in the first half of the 20th century, much of Dvořák’s music might have lingered in relative obscurity. As luck would have it, he couldn’t have had a better champion. Indeed, for Dvořák one might say that a case of healthy optimism—of imagining what might be—and a little bit of luck pervaded his life; ultimately, his music found its proper place in the repertory.

His upbringing was modest, but instead of apprenticing in his father’s butcher shop or working at the family inn, the 13-year-old Antonín pursued a career as a professional musician—a choice that neither mother nor father would love. Dvořák persevered.

After enrolling in the Prague Organ School at age 16, he had to make ends meet by giving private music lessons and by playing viola in restaurant bands and opera pit orchestras. Still, the young composer couldn’t afford a piano of his own or scores for study. He relied on teaching and performing to pay his bills until the late 1870s, only a few years before the Symphony No. 7 began to take shape.

Dvořák was inspired by a growing nationalist movement among the Czech people, who had long been dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ruling Hapsburg family. Like his Czech brethren, Dvořák wished for renown beyond the insular borders of his adopted city of Prague. He achieved this, thanks in large part to the unqualified support of Johannes Brahms and the international reception for his Slavonic Dances, the hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain,” and his Stabat Mater for chorus and orchestra. The success of the 1885 world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 in London would guarantee his status.

Dvořák became haunted by the work, both by its possibility as a personal statement and as an expression of this nascent Czech patriotism. (The composer got into a major flap with his German publisher Simrock over insisting that titles appear in both Czech and German.) In a letter to his friend Antonín Rus, Dvořák wrote: “I am occupied at present with my new symphony (for London) and wherever I go I think of nothing but this new work [that] must be capable of stirring the world—may God grant that it will!”

This symphony did the job. Writing about the work, biographer John Clapham observes that the symphony “possess[es] greater dramatic power, deeper emotional feeling, and a breadth of vision unparalleled in anything else [Dvořák] had previously composed.”

The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, begins with a striking first theme in D minor—Dvořák was inspired to write it after witnessing a train of anti-Hapsburg nationalists disembarking at a Prague train station. It emerges as if from a fog, finally declaiming itself as though announcing Dvořák’s, and his people’s, arrival on an international stage. A sunny second theme in the major follows, but the majestic and menacingly purposeful first theme continues to assert itself.

The slower second movement (Poco adagio) is both reverential and pastoral. A choral-like tune in the winds is followed by sweet strings and a yearning flute solo. The mood turns darker, but never despairing, as Dvořák leads us back eventually again into the light, ending sweetly, optimistically, on an understated F-major chord.

The third movement Scherzo is based on a furiant, an exuberant Czech folk dance. Its rollicking cross-rhythms and upbeat nature bring to mind a vibrant street scene of impromptu revelers, one group resting and weary, another dancing with fury and energy until the end. The final cadence of the coda in D minor returns us to the home key.

The Finale begins enigmatically, though it soon takes up the energy and the menacing tone—again in D minor. As it develops, Dvořák harks back to the patriotic majesty of the opening movement, the thoughtfulness of the Adagio, and the enthusiasm of the Scherzo-furiant. The insistent D minor gives way at last to the glorious light of D major, ending with what writer Paul Stefan has called “a majestic declaration of spiritual dignity.” ―Dave Kopplin