Symphony No. 5 in F Major, Op. 76, B54
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
15 June - 23 July 1875 (revision 1887)
Premiere - date and place
25 March 1879, Prague
"Filharmonie" Orchestra, conductor Adolf Cech
Simrock, 1888, Berlin
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
Parts / movements
1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante con moto
3. Scherzo. Allegro scherzando
4. Finale. Allegro molto
approx. 40 min.
Dvorak’s fifth symphony, written within a mere six weeks, represents a milestone in the development of the composer’s individual style. It is the culmination of his early symphonies to date, indicating the gradual evolution of his musical idiom, and also the beginning of the series which would ultimately be recognised as Dvorak’s symphonic masterpieces. Despite a certain lack of unity in his expression, arising from the contrast between the dramatic tenor of the last movement and the more restrained mood of the previous movements, this is a mature work. In terms of Dvorak’s musical development, it demonstrates a significant improvement in his endeavour to grasp the formal arrangement of the individual movements, and his ability to articulate the thematic material within them. In his Symphony in F major Dvorak became one of the first composers to succeed in re-establishing the structure of the classical symphony, now seemingly assigned to the past, and giving it a new, modern slant.
formal structure and content
The first movement is characteristic for its pastoral tone colour and thus anticipates the beginning of Dvorak’s so-called Slavic period. Its atmosphere is determined by the main theme which, in accordance with Classical tradition, is created “merely” from a broken chord figure. However, the composer’s invention ensures it a distinctiveness which lingers in the mind, particularly due to its catchy rhythm. During the course of the movement the theme is frequently exposed in the soft woodwind, which underlines the natural, lyrical character of the whole movement. The second movement might be described as a nocturne which, in its mood – in spite of the absence of a contrasting lively section – comes close to Dvorak’s numerous dumky. The introductory melodic progression of the main theme, indicated as “espressivo e dolente” (expressive and sorrowful), is reminiscent of the famous introductory theme of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor (Dvorak would not have been familiar with it; the Russian composer had completed his concerto only a few months earlier and its premiere in the USA took place after the completion of Dvorak’s symphony). At the end of the second movement Dvorak noted in the score: “Very brief pause and go straight on”. The third movement thus follows on almost attacca, which is moreover emphasised with a short introduction that picks up the mood of the previous section. This is an unusual phenomenon for Dvorak, occurring in his major orchestral works only in the case of his violin concerto. The Scherzo in A-B-A form calls to mind the Slavonic Dances, with its joyful atmosphere and rousing vitality. It is characterised by a marked rhythmicity which eases off for a moment only in the middle section. The fourth movement, in its striking, dramatic expression anticipating the sombre atmosphere of the seventh symphony, is one of the most powerful examples of Dvorak’s orchestral writing. Its unusual quality lies in its reluctance to anchor itself in the fundamental key (F major), which is itself only established after more than fifty bars; its tussle with the key of A minor persists for practically the entire movement and is only won convincingly at the very close of the work.
Like a number of the composer’s other works, this symphony also has a high opus number (76) which does not correspond with the date of completion. Dvorak originally gave the work the opus number 24, but when his publisher Simrock was preparing the first printed edition thirteen years later, he changed the opus number without Dvorak’s consent in order to give the impression that this was a brand new work. Since Dvorak’s symphonies in D major and D minor (today nos. 6 and 7 respectively) had already been published, this symphony was long considered the composer’s “Third”.
premiere and reception
The symphony was premiered in Prague in March 1879 under conductor Adolf Cech. It would be nine long years before the work was presented to its first foreign audience: conductor August Manns performed it at London’s Crystal Palace on 7 April 1888. English composer and music journalist Charles Barry described the performance of the symphony in a letter to Dvorak: “Dear Friend! I have the pleasure to be the first (I think) to tell you that your Symphony Op. 76 was splendidly played yesterday, and very warmly received. [...] The last movement, without undervaluing the others, is a grand inspiration, written in a masterful form.” In October 1887 Dvorak dedicated his symphony to celebrated German conductor Hans von Bulow, who had already been a great promoter of the composer’s works abroad during the 1870s. Bulow responded to the dedication in a letter dated 25. 11. 1887 (see fig.): “Esteemed Maestro! The dedication from you – alongside Brahms the most blessed composer of our times – is a higher honour for me than any grand cross from any prince. With the most heartfelt thanks I accept this honour. Your sincerely devoted admirer, Hans von Bulow.”