Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

by Max Derrickson

Antonin Dvořák   (Born in 1841 near Prague, Bohemia(now Czech Republic); died in1904 in Prague)
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
I. Allegro con brio
II. Adagio
III. Allegretto grazioso
IV. Allegro ma non troppo

When Dvořák began composing his Symphony No. 8 in 1889, he was already a world renowned composer, and firmly established as a Czech Nationalist.  With the great success of his Seventh Symphony, the composer had become sure of his voice and wielded his musical tools with confidence.  But even at this point, Dvořák was compelled to experiment and broaden his writing skills, the effervescence of what he wished to express drawing him continually down new pathways.  Even though his 8th took barely two months to compose, the Czech master lit down a new compositional trail, one in which, as he said, he wanted “to write a symphony different from my other symphonies, with individual ideas worked out in a new manner.”


What Dvořák appears to be working out is the innate ambiguity of the implied meaning of a melody – the intense musical relationship between light and dark.  For all of the Symphony’s usual descriptions as being “sunny,” “idyllic,” and “pastoral,” it actually includes much that is dark, mysterious, conflicted, albeit exquisitely beautiful.  And yet, convincingly, by the end of the whole Symphony, a listener will feel freshly infused with warmth and joy.


Although the Symphony is marked as being in G-Major, the very first theme we hear from the cellos is in a minor key – poignant and searching.  As this theme throughout the first movement it serves to ground the work, bringing back, more forcefully each time, a notion that the overall gaiety of the movement is not what it might seem.  Not to fear, however –  Dvořák includes a vivid supply of lightness in this Symphony whose themes are as beautiful as any he wrote.  A great example of this comes immediately after the opening theme.  The flute appears with what sounds like a crisp, joyful birdsong on a spring day inPrague, now, finally in G-Major.  The orchestra is quick to fill in with sunshine, breezes and an excited energy.  But with the eventual return of the brooding opening theme, a sense of something much deeper emerges – near the end, its metamorphosis into a darkly menacing fanfare is one of the Symphony’s great moments.  Echoing this, the English horn replays the flute’s bird-song theme, transforming the flute’s lightness into shadows.  The first two themes, however, are so organically blended that they seamlessly lead to a majestic close, making for one of the longest and most complex movement’s in all of Dvořák’s symphonies.


The second movement is as contrasting as the first, but here, with even more poignancy, and yet, with a deep and tender beauty filling this movement.  The opening gesture is melancholic, Bohemian-esquely colored with the reeds of the clarinets, reminiscent of something tragic, and yet somewhat defiant.  [. . .]


Like its predecessors, the third movement plays on contrasts as well.  This time, however, the first section of this intermezzo/scherzo – it really doesn’t fit either of these forms precisely – may in fact tell us a little more about this Symphony’s underpinnings.  The music is comprised of falling musical motives, which, themselves, sequentially echo each other in downward steps.  Since the time of Bach, this kind of writing was meant to evoke falling tears.    [. . .]   However personally it might be informed, this movement is richly expressive, memorable and endearing.


The last movement opens with a Prague tradition transformed into a Symphonic voice.  Each day, at various hours, trumpeters stand atop the parapets on the Charles Bridge and other towers around Prague and play a hearty fanfare in a call and response.  This long and much cherished tradition has occurred in Prague since the 15th Century, [. . .]