Concert Notes

Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Han-Yi Huang

The Composer
Dvořák is typically recognized as a Czech composer. However, the Czech Republic did not exist as an independent nation during his lifetime, and the territory was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even though the Czech National Revival movement began at the end of the 18th century and Dvořák started composing in the 1860s, within the empire, the Bohemian and Slavic culture was still considered uncivilized and unenlightened by the mainstream German culture. Dvořák built his reputation as a composer in Prague, but his name was barely heard beyond the Bohemia area until 1875. That year, he applied for and won a state pension for promising young artists. Johannes Brahms was a member of the jury, and he was amazed by the amount and quality of music that Dvořák submitted. Brahms recommended Dvořák’s music to his publisher, and later became the composer’s friend and mentor. With the promotion Brahms’ was giving him, Dvořák began drawing public attention. But his music was considered “light and popular.” He often used Bohemian folk music in the material of his work, thus he was not recognized as a serious composer by the Austrian-German set. 

Symphony No. 7
In June 1884, Dvořák was commissioned to write a new symphony by the London Philharmonic Society. It was the same organization which had commissioned Beethoven to write the legendary Ninth Symphony in 1817. Perhaps the eagerness of earning approval from the major classical music world made him decide to leave out his characteristically Slavic-inspired melodies, and to create a symphony in the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms. The new symphony he wrote for the London Philharmonic Society is the Symphony No. 7. The premiere of the piece in London was hugely successful; the critics even placed it above Brahms’ symphonies. However, when the work was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, the audience was not as enthusiastic about it. Dvořák’s Czech background might have been the reason for this tepid reaction. Nonetheless, the Symphony No. 7 proved that Dvořák was capable of employing the traditional symphonic structure, and earned him an international reputation.