Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, opus 70

Antonín Dvořák

Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904


The Seventh Symphony was Dvořák bid to make a big noise in the world. As a young composer, he had been hampered by living in Bohemia, then a rural backwater of the mighty Austrian empire, and for many years his fame was strictly local. In the mid 1870s, Brahms discovered him and generously used his power in the Viennese musical establishment to promote Dvořák’s career. By 1883, the Czech composer was finally poised for international acclaim when his choral-orchestral Stabat Mater scored a major success in London.

The next year, Dvořák traveled there himself to conduct his music, and the adulation reached fever pitch. The composer remembered his reception at one of the British choral festivals: "As soon as I appeared, I received a tempestuous welcome from the audience of 12,000. ... I had to bow my thanks again and again, the orchestra and choir applauding me with no less fervor. ... I am convinced that England offers me a new and certainly happier future, and one which I hope may benefit our entire Czech art." London’s Royal Philharmonic Society promptly requested a new symphony for their 1885 concerts. Thus was born his Symphony in D Minor, premiered by the Royal Philharmonic under the composer's baton on April 22, 1885.

Today most commentators rank the Seventh as Dvořák's greatest symphony, if not the greatest piece he ever wrote. The noted British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey linked it with Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony and Brahms' four symphonies "as among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven."

Dvořák would have been delighted to have this work mentioned alongside Brahms' symphonies, for Brahms was his model and mentor. Early in 1884, he had heard the German's recently completed Third Symphony and was bowled over. But though the Seventh was inspired by Brahms' Third, it is no copy. A more tragic work, it displays the dark defiance of the Czech underdog. Dvořák was intensely proud of his nationality and determined that his music would stand apart from the dominant Austro-German school. While striving for a more universal tone, his Seventh still proudly flaunts its Czech origins, especially in its third-movement.    

The sonata-form first movement opens with a darkly murmuring theme in the low strings, with ominous diminished-seventh harmonies contributed twice by woodwinds. Dvořák said this theme came to him while watching hundreds of Hungarian patriots demonstrating against the Austrian imperial regime disembark at the Prague railroad station; like the Czechs, the Hungarians suffered under Austrian domination. Soon the full orchestra attacks this theme with defiant force. But flutes and clarinets followed by violins soon sing a marvelous flowing melody, temporarily easing the tension. In a short but powerful development section, Dvořák probes the mysteries of his opening conspiratorial theme.

Many have called the slow second movement the finest the composer ever wrote. Its great beauty mingles sorrow with protest. Dvořák had recently lost his mother, to whom he was very close, and the steady slide into insanity of his Czech colleague Bedrich Smetana also grieved him. This movement is full of poignant melodies clothed in gorgeous orchestral hues. Notable among them are the opening theme for clarinet and bassoon, a soft rising-and-falling melody for the violins, and the haunting music for horns immediately following.

Dvořák scholar Otakar Sourek describes the third-movement scherzo as "a wild, unhappy dance in hard, syncopated ... rhythms and dark orchestral coloring, in which the expression of wrathful defiance flares up with no less fury than in the opening movement." The inspiration is the traditional Czech furiant dance with its provocative cross-rhythms. Despite its lovely surface, the woodwind-dominated trio section also shares in the agitation, its serenity troubled by "the incessant rumbling of the basses" (Tovey).

Defiance also drives the sonata-form finale, with its baleful opening theme jumping an octave, then collapsing back by a dissonant half step. The cellos soon offer a soaring melody, but it is the baleful theme that dominates the action. Miraculously, in the symphony's final moments Dvořák transforms it from dark opposition to the voice of triumph in his blazing D Major conclusion.


Instrumentation: Two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.


Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014