Symphony No. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 4, B12
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
1 August – 9 October 1865 (revision 1887)
Premiere - date and place
11 March 1888, Prague
National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Adolf Čech
SNKLHU, 1959, Prague
B flat major
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
Parts / movements
1. Allegro con moto
2. Poco Adagio
3. Scherzo. Allegro con brio
4. Finale. Allegro con fuoco
approx. 51 min.
general characteristics and formal structure
Dvořák began writing his second symphony a mere four months after completing his Symphony No. 1. The two works have much in common: Symphony No. 2 is also typical for its promising invention, betraying the potential of an ingenious master of melody; at the same time, however, particularly in the outer movements, it suffers from being overly turgid. Lack of experience with this challenging musical form meant that, at this early stage in his career, the composer’s creative imagination was much more powerful than his ability to make practical use of the thematic material in a convincing way. The complex and lengthy passages in the individual movements thus tend to lose their clarity for the audience. While the classical symphonic model uses a sonata-form structure in the first movement constructed from two or three distinct themes, the first movement of Dvořák’s second symphony contains as many as seven themes, thus the piece in this case is more akin to a rhapsody, fantasia or symphonic poem. Moreover, the work appeared at a time Dvořák’s interest in Wagner was nearing its peak, a fact reflected in the way he used the thematic material, incorporating irregular, “unending” melodies. Dvořák’s second symphony thus gives less indication of the composer’s subsequent characteristic style than his previous Symphony No. 1. An exception might be made in the case of the second movement which, in its broadly arching melody, anticipates the masterful Adagios to come. Compared with the heroic mood of the first symphony, one might speak of the second symphony more in terms of pastoral tones and a generally more lyrical expression.
The score for the symphony is remarkable in several respects. None of the movements begins directly with the main theme; in all four cases their entrance is preceded by an introduction. The most original of these is the introduction to the fourth movement: while it only covers a few bars, the music could be described as manifestly avant-garde, leaving listeners wondering if the composer of this particular passage and the maestro behind Slavonic Dances were one and the same. Furthermore, it contains a motif – elaborated during the course of the movement – which appears many years later as one of the principal ideas in the opera Rusalka. This is a four-note motif which occurs in the opera at crucial stages or at highly dramatic points in the plot. It also plays a fundamental role at the very end of the work: following Rusalka’s great song of forgiveness, after the words “Bůh tě pomiluj” (“God have mercy on you!”), the motif is heard as a retrograde figure in the fortissimo brass as the culmination of this cathartic moment. Thirty-five years separate these two works. How are we to understand the fact that Dvořák, now sixty years of age and at the peak of his musical career, now recalled a secondary motif from an early work and assigned it a key role in his operatic masterpiece? Musicologist David R. Beveridge believes an explanation might be found in the circumstances of Dvořák’s private life in the year 1865, when the symphony was written. According to traditional interpretations, this was the period when Dvořák was rejected by his pupil and colleague from the theatre, Josefina Čermáková. Until this point he had also been unsuccessful as a composer – he had turned out one composition after another, yet none of them had found an audience. Perhaps Rusalka’s suffering reminded the mature Dvořák of his own ill-fated love and of the troubles he had experienced at that time, which he associated with the composition of his Symphony No. 2. The cathartic impact of the end of the symphony is similar to the close of Rusalka and thus may symbolise Dvořák’s personal victory over his unfavourable circumstances in the mid-1860s.
score history and premiere
Like a number of his other very early works, according to some sources, Dvořák wanted to destroy this symphony as well. He was apparently prevented from doing so by Mořic Anger, with whom he was sharing a flat at the time: a sketchily documented account states that Dvořák intended to have the completed score bound but, because he couldn’t pay for the binding, Anger helped him out. When Dvořák later thought of discarding the work, Anger demanded the money owed to him. Dvořák was unable to pay back the debt, so Anger took the score as security. He only returned it once he was confident that the composer no longer had any plans to destroy it. Many years later, in 1887, Dvořák subjected the symphony to a revision (thinning out the dense orchestration) and began to entertain the idea of publishing it. However, it never came out in print during his lifetime. The work was first performed from the manuscript in 1888 in Prague’s Rudolfinum, conducted by Adolf Čech. Dvořák subsequently used some of the themes from the symphony for his piano cycle Silhouettes.