Symphony No. 8 (Opus 88) by Antonín Dvorák: Program Notes

Antonín Dvorák portraitDedicated to the Bohemian Academy of Science, Literature and Arts, this piece was composed in Dvorák’s strikingly yellow summer residence situated in Central Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Contrary to his previous symphonies, this work is bright and optimistic, utilising traditional folk tunes from Bohemia itself.

The Allegro con brio begins the symphony with glowing power emanating from the timpani, moving from G major to G minor over a ten minute whirlwind of moods and pulses. Here we get our first taste of what the work has to offer: a range of emotive melodies, an amiable brass section, prominent flute parts, lively percussion, and dramatic harmonies in the strings.

In the second movement, the strings introduce the idea of a beautiful summer’s day, reciprocated and developed by the flutes. However, this great weather cannot last, as the horns briefly interrupt to call out a thunderstorm. Dvorák is quick to bring back the summer weather, the storm being only brief and the familiar melody of the flutes returning.

A delicate and sophisticated melody played by the strings announces the beginning of the melancholy waltz which characterises the third movement. One can imagine dancing to this piece at an ornate ball where women are dressed in extravagant dresses, the twist being that it is the last ball that one will ever attend. The feelings of happiness that come along with dancing threatening to be undone by the melancholic factor of the night’s inevitable end.

The fourth movement is declared with a fanfare followed by a triumphant melody in the strings. It is typified by theme and variation form and complemented by an unstable, tempestuous sentiment. The movement ends on a dramatic note, with the brass leading a jovial quickening race to the finish line.

Written in 1894, just four years after this piece was premiered, Dvorák expressed his admiration of the classical models used especially by Schubert and Beethoven. Not an uncommon sentiment in the early years of the Neo-Classical movement developing at the time. This influence can be seen especially in the last movement which employs theme and variation. However, what can also be heard in this symphony is his admiration of Wagner’s compositional style, with seemingly rich harmonies and orchestration.

The symphony itself is a favourite of many brass players, and is usually played second to his New World symphony. However, this symphony is unique in itself and offers a sweet flavour to the Dvorák palate.

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