Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, B9 "The Bells of Zlonice"
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
14 February - 24 March 1865
Premiere - date and place
4 October 1936, Brno
State Theatre Orchestra, conductor Milan Sachs
Statni hudebni vydavatelstvi, 1961, Prague
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
Parts / movements
2. Adagio di molto
4. Finale. Allegro animato
approx. 50 min.
composition history, score and premiere
Dvorak decided to write his first orchestral composition at the age of twenty-four but, in doing so, he was setting himself a difficult task right at the outset: the symphonic form is considered supreme in the field of instrumental music. The young composer’s decision was hardly surprising, however; it merely showed a natural affection for a sphere of musical composition towards which he was most predisposed for the majority of his life.
The subtitle (which doesn’t appear in the autograph score although Dvorak himself later gave the symphony this label) refers to the composer’s time in Zlonice, where he had acquired the rudiments of music theory during his adolescence. According to an unreliable account, Dvorak sent off his autograph score of the symphony to a competition in Germany, and never got it back. When later asked what steps he took to resolve the matter, Dvorak is said to have briefly remarked: “Nothing. I just sat down and wrote a new symphony.” This statement, if it is authentic, represents in a nutshell one of the typical traits of the composer’s attitude to life – an iron will. It was long thought that the symphony had become a victim of Dvorak’s sharply self-critical period, in which he burned a number of earlier works. In any event, the composer never heard his first symphony performed, and died believing it was irrevocably lost.
It wasn’t until 1923, nineteen years after Dvorak’s death, that the score suddenly appeared in the legacy of Charles University professor Dr Rudolf Dvorak (no relation), who had apparently purchased it in a second-hand bookshop in Leipzig back in 1882. It still took another thirteen years before the work was performed for the first time (71 years after it was written); the premiere was held in Brno by the Provincial Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Milan Sachs.
general characteristics and formal structure
While, in terms of its instrumentation, Dvorak’s first symphony looks more to what was then the modern Neo-Romantic trend, from a formal point of view it betrays the influence of Schubert and Beethoven. The composer observes the classical arrangement of the four-movement scheme, with the first movement in sonata form; the second, lyrical movement is written in a slow tempo, the third has the character of a scherzo, and the fourth movement combines sonata and rondo principles. The sequence of keys chosen for the individual movements, C minor – A flat major – C minor – C major, is even a reference to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (C minor as a principal key does not figure in any of Dvorak’s other cyclical works hereafter). Despite the undisputed influence of the Viennese classics, the composer’s distinctive compositional style is already in evidence. We will recognise it particularly in the pastoral lyricism of the slow movement, whose main theme in the solo oboe rising above a soft string accompaniment is one of the strongest inspirations in the work, in Dvorak’s sense of the full orchestral sound, and in the rhythmic vitality of the music.
Dvorak’s Symphony No. 1 is typical for its youthful flights of fancy and the rousing expression of the work as a whole, although the individual movements still demonstrate a tendency to ramble. The work’s subtitle “The Bells of Zlonice” is reflected directly in the score – the sound of the bells of the church in Zlonice is heard in a stylised form in the very introduction of the symphony as a succession of striking chords from the entire orchestra playing at full strength. Dvorak introduces an idiosyncratic rhythmical figure which first accompanies the main subject in the first movement, and later appears in the following three movements; it then opens out fully in the coda of the final movement. This principle of reminiscence, which the composer applied here for the first time, was later used in a number of works, to greatest effect in Symphony No. 9. Also noteworthy is the frequent exposure of the brass instruments which, particularly in the first movement, lend the work a ceremonial, almost flamboyant sheen. The composer later used some of the themes from the symphony for his piano cycle Silhouettes, Op. 8; the above-mentioned rhythmical motif even occurs twenty-five years later in the Dies irae from Dvorak’s Requiem.
The fact that Dvorak later used a number of motifs from the symphony in other opuses led certain Dvorak scholars to attribute to the work associations that lay outside the music itself. According to the composer’s biographer Otakar Sourek and musicologist Jarmil Burghauser, strong connections can be made between the composer’s decision to write the first symphony and his strong feelings for his pupil, actress at the Provisional Theatre Josefina Cermakova. The symphony appeared in the same year as the song cycle Cypresses, regarded as Dvorak’s declaration of love for Cermakova. As in the case of the symphony, themes from Cypresses also occur later in the piano cycle Silhouettes and in other works. Given the above-mentioned connections with Beethoven’s “Fate” symphony, Burghauser offers a further interpretation, according to which the symphony expresses Dvorak’s own life journey, from the start of his musical career in Zlonice (the bell motif), via the “path inevitably laid down by destiny” (rhythmical leitmotiv), to the jubilant close, expressing his optimistic view of the future (fourth movement).