Program Notes for
Dvorak Symphony No 8 in G major
When the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák set out to compose his Symphony No. 8 in G major in the summer of 1889, he was already a very successful composer of vast experience in a wide variety of genres, including symphonic, choral, and chamber works, as well as opera. Thanks in part Brahms' early stamp of approval and the resultant steady support of the Berlin publisher Simrock, Dvořák had long since managed to solidly establish himself in the German and Austrian music world despite that region's enduring prejudice against Bohemian culture and by the 1880s England was proving to be, if anything, even more enthusiastic. Prestigious state and academic honours were coming his way and his finances had improved to the point where he could purchase his own country home, enabling him to compose peacefully in his own beloved natural surroundings. This then, was the context that gave birth to his new symphony, a work of supreme confidence suffused with the rustic sounds of nature, rural life, and Slavonic folk song. Accordingly, public and critical expectations were at their highest, and when the time came for the work's international premieres in Prague, Vienna and London in the following months, Dvořák did not disappoint. The symphony, representing the composer at his most melodious, unbuttoned and cheerful (and a great contrast from the darker Seventh Symphony), was a fabulous success.
The first movement begins quietly and gently in G minor with a songful introductory melody accompanied by the simplest of chords. It soon gathers energy and volume, setting the stage for the bright and energetic main theme in G major. There follows a more lyrical and contrasting second group of themes, after which the composer soon reverts back to the opening of the movement, as if to repeat the exposition of a sonata movement. But this is not to be, and instead the composer launches on an extended development section. The rest of the movement continues to play fast and loose with the traditional form, at once creating a sense of familiarity and at the same time thwarting our expectations at various points with rhapsodic departures. So sure was Dvořák of his mastery of symphonic form by this time in his career that he was able to fulfill his goal of creating (as he put it when composing the work) something new and different.
The slow movement is marked adagio, but nonetheless maintains a fine sense of flow. There remains much depth of feeling but the music somehow remains refreshingly free of the kind of Brucknerian weightiness that was increasingly found in adagio movements as the 19th Century progressed. This, in any case, was not Dvořák's style. The third movement is in simple ABA three-part form and begins in G minor with an unforgettable melody of unmistakable Bohemian flavour. It is a tune worthy of the Slavonic Dances which had brought so much fame to the composer, and the movement's middle section in the tonic major contains yet another lyrical melody no less winsome.
The finale begins with a relatively measured and stately fanfare-like theme for solo trumpet which forms the basis for a series of variations. The first variation transforms the fanfare into a heartfelt theme for the cellos while the second gives it to the upper strings. The music then suddenly shifts into high gear and we now have the absolutely unbridled excitement of the third variation with its prominent (and very memorable!) horn flourishes which, once heard, will never be forgotten. The next variation calms the atmosphere somewhat with a quieter but cheerful flute variation, but after this point Dvořák becomes ever more unorthodox. The first indication of this is the unexpected return of the exciting third variation, a compositional decision that disrupts flow of the traditional theme and variations format. Another variation then follows which leads into a section that sounds more like an extended development. After this, the movement's first variation is then brought back. Following on the heals of the previous development, this temporarily generates the feel of a sonata form. But soon, the exciting third variation returns one last time, now functioning as a rousing coda and bringing the symphony to a close on the highest of spirits. The formal twists are very clever, but at the same time sound completely unforced and natural to the ordinary listener. The composer would have wanted no less.