Soundbites: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60

One of the more awesome things I’ve been doing this summer is writing program notes for some classical music concerts around Salt Lake City. For those who don’t know, program notes are a staple in classical music. They provide historical, social, and/or theoretical context for the pieces that are featured in the concert and are often meant to be a listening guide of sorts.

In May, I had the opportunity to write program notes for Utah Symphony’s Vivace, a super cool group that attends concerts together and hangs out afterwards. Vivace’s program notes are known for their quippy, informal, and irreverent tone. I had a ton of fun researching and writing these notes. Hopefully you’ll enjoy listening to Dvorak and reading some of my commentary!

Dvořák: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60

(1880) | Duration: 42 mins.

For those who dabble in classical music, Antonin Dvořák is probably known as the shining beacon of Czech classical music. He is often placed on a pedestal for his national identity, which makes sense given the historical trends of the rise of nationalism in 19th century Europe. We’re talking nation-to-nation peer pressure. Write music to represent your country because all the cool kids are doing it! So based on that context, it is important to mention that Dvořák grew up in an eclectic musical family. His dad was a butcher, innkeeper, and also randomly played the zither. [Basically it’s a guitar-like instrument.] Dvořák was immersed in Czech folk music. He didn’t attend any strict conservatories, but instead his education on the organ, violin, and viola was mostly through private lessons and some training at Prague’s only organ school. After all of that, one would think that Dvořák really was the epitome of bohemian.

Ironically, as it turns out, Dvořák goes on to become one of the biggest Brahms fanboys known in music history. We’re talking both Symphony 6 and 7 most likely being inspired by his one-and-only German idol. So, it would seem that Dvořák’s music was more cosmopolitan that meets the eye. If you know anything about his New World Symphony No. 9, then you can back me up on this. As it turns out, Symphony 6 was written for the Vienna Philharmonic, its conductor Hans Richter, and a Viennese audience in mind. Hopefully any lingering doubts about the teutonic (the fancy word for Germanic) leanings of this piece can be put to rest with the revelation of that tidbit.

The piece is written in four movements. The first movement Allegro non tanto is probably the most Brahmsian of them all with its opening gesture, repeated chords, and its use of primary and secondary themes. In the second movement, Adagio, there is the familiar feature of thematic repetition as Dvořák emphasizes the theme through different instrument combinations. Although the similarities between Brahms and Dvořák are striking, you know what they say. You might be able to take the Czech out of Bohemia, but you can’t take the Bohemia out of the Czech. This couldn’t be more apparent than in the third movement Scherzo – Furiant, Presto. The furiant is a type of Czech dance that features a type of polyrhythm (multiple rhythms at the same time in this case 2 notes against 3 notes), which gives the movement a distinctly un-German sound. All that is good and well, but the real question is, how did people learn to dance to a rhythm like that? I guess we’ll just have to ask the Czechs. The symphony ends with Finale – Allegro con spirito and a return to the nice strong sense of sonata form. And really what could be more standard than that?

In the end, I guess Symphony No. 6 can be interpreted as a cross-pollination of Dvořák’s love for country and love for all-things Brahms. In some ways, you can’t help but wonder whether this symphony was a shrewd fame-grab move on the part of Dvořák. After all, it’s no small feat to know how to hold the interest of a mainstay Viennese audience by adding a touch of unique flair to the German tradition through Czech nationalism. And according to history, Symphony No. 6 was one of the first orchestral works that shot Dvořák out of the box of nationalist composer and into international spotlight.

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