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symphonic variations

COMPOSED 6 August 1877 - 28 September 1877 (revision 1887 (?))
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE 2 December 1877, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) Provisional Theatre Orchestra, conductor Ludevit Prochazka
FIRST EDITION Simrock, 1888, Berlin
MAIN KEY C major
INSTRUMENTATION 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
DURATION approx. 22 min.

composition history

The composition of Symphonic Variations was initiated by Ludevit Prochazka, who was to conduct a benefit concert to raise funds for the construction of a new church in Prague’s Smichov district, and he requested a new work from Dvorak for the occasion. The composer decided to write a set of variations for the event. The work was originally ascribed the opus number 38, but Dvorak altered this to 40 for the first performance. When Symphonic Variations came out in print eleven years later, publisher Simrock changed the opus number to 78 to give the impression that this was a more recent work. 

general characteristics

For the main theme of his Symphonic Variations, Dvorak used the melody of his own song for male choir The Fiddler, set to verse by Adolf Heyduk, from the cycle Choral Songs for Male Voices. This was not a random decision. Apart from the uncommon metric structure of 7+6+7 bars, the melody is also unusual for its use of the Lydian fourth, both elements which enable the listener to orient himself as the music progresses. The presentation of the theme itself is followed by 28 variations which travel through a broad spectrum of different moods and undergo multiple instrumental transformations. The work’s harmonic plan sees the first 17 variations keeping to the basic key of C major; the following nine move off into different keys (No. 18 in D major, No. 19 in B flat major, Nos. 20-24 in B flat minor, No. 25 in G flat major, No. 26 in D major); and the last two variations are back in C major. The work ends spectacularly with a fugue which suddenly becomes a Czech polka at its climax. The work is a brilliant display of musical ideas and a fine example of the composer’s orchestral mastery.


letter from Hans Richter
dated 17 May 1887

premiere and subsequent performances

Despite the favourable reviews that followed the premiere on 2 December 1877, the Symphonic Variations were sidelined for ten years. They were not performed again until 6 March 1887, when Dvorak himself conducted the National Theatre Orchestra. The new success of the work encouraged Dvorak to send the score to his great admirer, conductor Hans Richter, suggesting that he might include it in the programme for his English tour. Richter accepted the Variations and performed them in London to appreciative audiences. He wrote the following to Dvorak after the concert:

My dear friend! I am delighted at the huge success of your Symphonic Variations. If I consider all the hundreds of concerts I have conducted, I realise I have never known a new work to spark such undeniable enthusiasm, from all quarters. Everyone wanted to know when the work was written, and why had Dvorak waited so long to bring it to public attention? I’ll leave the parts here, since I’ll probably be performing it once more. I say ‘probably’, even though now it’s almost certain. At any rate, I must present these variations in Vienna next winter”.

The Viennese premiere took place on 4 December 1887. Dvorak attended the concert and thus witnessed the huge ovations that followed. He wrote in a letter to his publisher Simrock:

As Brahms stated – and he knows the Viennese audience very well: none of my works has ever had such an impact as the ‘Variations’. The work was performed superbly and the hall responded with thunderous applause. In acknowledgement of my variations, Brahms presented me with a wonderful cigarette holder.”