Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, B141
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
13 December 1884 – 17 March 1885 (revision 1885)
Premiere - date and place
22 April 1885, London
Philharmonic Society, conductor Antonín Dvořák
Simrock, 1885, Berlin
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
Parts / movements
1. Allegro maestoso
2. Poco Adagio
3. Scherzo. Vivace
4. Finale. Allegro
approx. 37 min.
Dvořák’s seventh symphony in succession, written in D minor, enjoys a special status in the composer’s series of nine symphonies. Its gloomy atmosphere is in direct contrast not only to its two neighbouring symphonies (Nos. 6 and 8), but also to the large majority of Dvořák’s oeuvre as a whole. It is characteristic for its dramatic expression and sombre atmosphere of grave uncertainty and obstinate defiance. It is distinguished for its absence of any Slav-inspired melodies which were characteristic for the composer’s preceding Slavic period and with which his compositional style is usually associated. In spite of its dramatic impact, this is also a profoundly intimate work where the composer examines the meanderings of his soul and the answers to elementary issues of human existence. While it cannot compete in popularity with Dvořák’s New World Symphony, in terms of its overall conception, the gravity of its testimony and its masterful formal treatment, this is a supreme example of symphonic writing which ranks alongside some of the most important works in the post-Beethoven development of the symphonic genre; a number of experts even place it above the symphonies of Brahms.
composition history and sources of inspiration
The unusually fervent sentiments of this symphony are sometimes attributed to the death of the composer’s mother. This explanation is somewhat improbable, given the fact that Anna Dvořáková died two years before he began writing the work. Literature on Dvořák also frequently mentions a personal crisis he is supposed to have suffered in the first half of the 1880s as a result of his growing international prestige. The composer was apparently suddenly faced with having to resolve an inner conflict between his patriotism and cosmopolitanism, between the “service to his country” expected of him, and his ambitions for international success, all of which led to a complete change of tone in his oeuvre. According to other interpretations, the character of the symphony may also have been influenced by the troubled socio-political atmosphere of the time. This supposition is based on a note the composer wrote into the score beneath the main theme of the first movement: “This main theme occurred to me upon the arrival at the station of the ceremonial train from Pest in 1884.” The note refers to the closely scrutinised visit to Prague by several hundred Hungarians and Hungarian Czechs. The highlight of the programme was a trip to see a performance at the National Theatre, but the whole event was more political than cultural in nature, and involved widespread politico-nationalistic rallies in all the major towns and cities through which the train passed. However, there is no convincing evidence for any of these theories.
Whatever the underlying causes, the fact remains that some of Dvořák’s opuses from this period are unusually dark and dramatic. In June 1884 Dvořák received a commission to write a new symphony from the Philharmonic Society in London along with the news that he had also been elected an honorary member. He gladly accepted this opportunity: after considerable success with the oratorio (his Stabat Mater was a triumph in London), he would now be able to present to English audiences proof of his capabilities as a symphonic writer as well. In addition, he was aware of the distinction this would bring, given that the commission had come from the famous institution for which Beethoven had written his Symphony No. 9. Dvořák set to work with the endeavour to create an opus which would surpass everything he had composed to date, the kind of symphony which “must be capable of stirring the world, and may God grant that it will!”
It would seem that the idea to abandon Slav folkloric inspiration during the composition of Symphony No. 7 was based on a rational decision to create a major work on the scale of Beethoven or Brahms which would triumph on the international music scene. A further impulse governing Dvořák’s resolve to write so significant a piece may also have been Brahms’s comment on the composer’s previous symphony: “I imagine your symphony will be quite unlike this one [Symphony No. 6].” Dvořák’s efforts were crowned by unmitigated success since, in his seventh symphony, he had created one of his masterpieces, flawless in both form and content.
formal structure and content
Dvořák wrote the symphony just as he was emerging from an inner crisis that had plagued him during the first half of the 1880s; the development of this crisis is also faithfully reflected in the work: the intellectual arc of the piece initially grows up from an atmosphere of agonising doubt, but ultimately leads to an expression of firm resolution. The endeavour to provide both a musical and personal testimony is suggested in the choice of key: Mozart chose D minor for his Requiem, Beethoven chose this key for his Symphony No. 9, and Brahms for his Piano Concerto No. 1, namely works whose significance shifts them away from the realm of “mere” music. The intellectual rigour of the work is also apparently mirrored in its sober instrumentation. Here, Dvořák only uses the classical Beethoven roster for his orchestra, while the brass instruments usually serve simply to condense the sound at dynamic high points. The conception of the whole work manifests a remarkable thematic cohesion, stylistic unity and uncommon compactness in the four-movement form. It is interesting to note the affinity of this symphony with the composer’s Hussite Overture. In the same way that both works grow up from a similar initial mood, we will also identify tonal associations in their thematic material.
The character of the first movement in sonata form is determined above all by the disposition of its main theme. Its sombre introduction set against the sustained note D is kept within the range of a fourth interval and is reminiscent of the proverbial “calm before the storm”. In its second part the theme suddenly rises up and surprisingly ends in a diminished seventh chord. The second subject is more conciliatory, yet, as it gradually evolves, a certain duskiness begins to take hold here as well. The development in the first movement is one of the most dramatic of Dvořák’s entire oeuvre, and its impact is again palpable, if not stronger, in the coda. The first movement ends with one of the composer’s most imaginative resolutions: the drama of the coda, becoming more intense towards the climax, suddenly recedes, and the music ebbs away resignedly in the same spirit in which the movement began. The dilemma was not addressed, nor were doubts cast aside, thus leaving a host of ideas open for the other movements of the symphony.
The second movement, Poco adagio, introduces a certain sense of calm, although it cannot be described as a carefree idyll. The music at this point is sometimes seen as a prayer for the peace of the soul. After the premiere, Dvořák shortened the movement by 40 bars, a fact he related in a letter to his publisher Simrock: “The Adagio is currently much shorter and more compact and now I am convinced that there is not a single superfluous note in the work.” The third movement, Scherzo, is composed in A–B–A form. In keeping with the overall mood of the symphony, it contains a number of sombre accents. The main section is structured around a highly rhythmical main theme, yet its dance-like character is relative to a contrasting counter-melody and its potential cheerful spirit is suppressed by the fundamental key of D minor. Moreover, towards the end of part A, the torrent of music progressively draws in increasingly dramatic elements which eventually churn together in some kind of wild, dark vortex. The fourth movement in sonata form with an abridged recapitulation might be characterised as an image of a heroic surge of will, an impression evoked immediately in the main theme with its opening ascending octave leap. The entire movement is an example of masterful thematic treatment, unfailing invention and a sense of the architecture overall. The movement culminates in an impressively structured coda which, with its resolute, liberated expression, brings the work to a confident close.
premiere and subsequent performances
Dvořák completed the symphony on 17 March 1885 and, by 22 April of that same year, during his third visit to England, he conducted its premiere at London’s St. James’s Hall. The work was given an enthusiastic reception, which Dvořák described two days later in a letter to his friend Václav Juda Novotný: “My dear friend! Before you receive this letter, you will probably already have heard of the outcome and of my reception here in London. The symphony was well liked and the audience acknowledged me and welcomed me in the most ostentatious fashion. There was pandemonium after every movement, rousing to the very end, just like at home, in fact. But this is, as always, a minor concern for me. What is important is that the symphony, even with only two rehearsals, went superbly. It was such a shame that you could not witness so wonderful a performance!” A number of major English newspapers (The Times, Daily News, Sunday Times, Morning Post, Daily Telegraph, Athenaeum etc.) printed extensive reviews, for the most part effusive in their praise. One music critic for the London Times was less enthusiastic, however, according to whom “the entire work is painted gris-en-gris: it lacks sweetness of melody and lightness of style: it is lugubrious without the pathos of sadness which is more elevating than joy itself”. On 29 November that same year the symphony was performed for the first time in Prague’s Rudolfinum, again conducted by Dvořák himself.
The symphony was also performed in German concert venues, thanks to the efforts of two leading conductors of their day: Hans Richter and Hans von Bülow. Richter first conducted the symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic on 16 January 1887, but the reception of the work was rather luke-warm. Richter, a great admirer of Dvořák’s music, was himself surprised at this and expressed as much in a letter to the composer: “Your Scherzo capriccioso went down well in Vienna; unfortunately, the symphony was not appreciated as much as I had hoped, or anticipated, given the flawless performance from the Philharmonic: our Philharmonic audiences are often, well, peculiar, to say the least! But this won’t distract me.” Nevertheless, the symphony was a triumph at two performances in Berlin given by Hans von Bülow. Dvořák was present at both concerts on 27 and 28 October 1889 and, overjoyed at the reception of his work, he attached a photograph of Bülow onto the title page of the autograph score, adding the note: “Hurrah! You brought this work to life!” That the work successfully travelled overseas was to a large extent due to celebrated Hungarian-German conductor Arthur Nikisch, who presented the symphony on several occasions during his tour of the United States in 1891.
Despite the huge success of Dvořák’s symphony in London, and despite its undisputed qualities as a major piece of symphonic writing, Dvořák still had to negotiate at length with his publisher Simrock. The latter offered the composer a fee of 3,000 marks with a voucher for works Dvořák had previously had published which were “still sitting around in the stockroom” and were thus not making the publisher any money. However, after the recent successes of his symphonies and other works at various concert venues abroad, Dvořák began to realise his worth. He refused the offer and requested a considerably higher sum: 6,000 marks. Simrock responded with a comprehensive letter, in which he explained that similarly lengthy works (symphonies, operas etc.) were not profitable and he advised Dvořák only to write shorter piano pieces that had a ready market. At this point he expressed his interest for the first time in a further series of Slavonic Dances, in which he saw, as Dvořák remarked, a “gold mine”. Simrock wrote the following on 1 May 1885: “Write me two volumes of Slavonic Dances for four hands; it will be much simpler for you than some symphony, it won’t even be a quarter of the work and effort, and I’ll be happy to pay you 2,000 marks for them, as opposed to 3,000 for a symphony!”. Dvořák responded to Simrock’s commercial reckonings with a frequently quoted letter dated 18 May 1885. It contained within it what might be described as the composer’s artistic creed: “If we take and examine with sound judgement everything you suggested in your last letter, we will arrive at a simple conclusion: Not to write any symphonies, major vocal works or instrumental compositions, just to come up with a few songs, piano pieces or dances and I don’t know what else, as an artist who wants to make a difference, I have to say that I cannot do this! Consider this, my dear friend, this is how I see things from where I stand, as a musician.” In the end, Simrock stepped down, but only after Dvořák had promised him a further series of Slavonic Dances.
The disagreement did not end there, however. Dvořák insisted that the printed piano score for the symphony should also have a Czech title, and that his Christian name shouldn’t appear as its German equivalent “Anton”, but at least as the neutral abbreviation “Ant.”. Simrock’s reply to this isn’t known, while one has a clear gist from Dvořák’s subsequent letter: “My dear friend Simrock! Do not mock my Czech brothers, and do not pity me, either. What I asked of you was merely my wish and, if you cannot fulfil it, I am justified in perceiving a lack of goodwill on your part such as I have not found either among English or French publishers.” The dispute about the title printed on the piano score edition gradually acquired a national political dimension, to which Dvořák responded with a decisive standpoint in his letter of 10 September 1885: “But what have we two to do with politics; let us be glad that we can dedicate our services to art. And let us hope that nations which possess and represent art will never perish, no matter how small they are. Forgive me, but I simply wanted to say to you that an artist also has his country in which he must place his staunch faith and for which he must have a fervent heart.” The disagreement with Simrock was for the moment amicably brushed aside, only to come to a head five years later in connection with the publication of Symphony No. 8. The quarrel ended with a temporary suspension of business relations.
period press review
London journal Athenaeum writing about the premiere:
“Let it be said at once and decidedly that the new work fully satisfied the highest expectations that had been formed regarding it; and that his symphony in D minor is not only entirely worthy of his reputation, but is one of the greatest works of its class produced in the present generation. Dvorak’s music is equally interesting, and we may add satisfying, to adherents of the conservative and the progressive schools of art – to the former because it illustrates the fact that it is possible to create something entirely new and original without departing from the formal outlines or the cannons of art laid down by the greatest masters of the past; to the more modern school because of the boldness of his harmonic progressions and the freedom of his rhythmic combinations. [...] The finale of the symphony is fully equal to any of the preceding movements; in its sustained power and masculine energy it may be placed by the side of the magnificent final movement of Schubert’s great Symphony in C, which, though widely different in its themes, it resembles in its exhaustless flow of melody, and even more, perhaps, in the resistless impulse with which it carries everything before it. We are inclined on a first hearing to place this new symphony even above those of Brahms, which it equals in masterly treatment and exquisite instrumentation while it surpasses them in spontaneity of invention.”