Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major inhabits a sunny, pastoral world filled with Bohemian folk melodies, rustic peasant dances, distant horn calls, and echoes of the birdsongs of the forest. It’s an enchanting world of exuberant celebration and quiet, lamenting nostalgia. Following the restless and stormy Seventh Symphony, Dvořák remarked that the Eighth, completed in the autumn of 1889, was “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” Few Romantic symphonies had been set in the key of G major, which evoked serene, idyllic landscapes and anticipated Mahler’s similarly pastoral Fourth Symphony, completed in 1900.
The first movement (Allegro con brio) begins in shadowy G minor with an expansive and majestic melody in the cellos. (Listen closely, and you will hear that under the cellos, the horn, bassoon and clarinet also carry this melodic line, combining to create a distinct, perhaps lamenting musical “voice”). A chorale-like resolution in the trombones sets the stage for the solo flute’s evocation of a birdsong. This dreamy soundscape is soon interrupted by an exuberant rush of energy which announces the exposition’s first theme. An array of voices come to life in a raucous, joyful celebration. Immediately, we get a sense of the fun, adventurous spirit which underlies so much of this Symphony.
The exposition concludes with a triumphant proclamation in the brass. This fanfare begins with an ascending triad, recalling the flute’s birdsong motif. We find ourselves back where we started, with a restatement of the initial G minor melody. This time, it opens the door to the vibrant drama of the development section. A vast dialogue of conversing voices, each with its distinct persona, unfolds in this section as the temperature continues to rise. It’s a familiar cast of characters. Yet here, the exposition’s motifs are tossed and turned with frightening abandon. Just in time, we arrive at the climax. The Symphony’s opening melody is transformed into a towering colossus in the trumpets, soaring over the strings’ tumultuous chromatic waves.
The second movement (Adagio) contains echoes of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. (As with its counterpart in the Eroica, it moves into C minor). Filled with mystery and nostalgia, this movement leads us deeper into the forest. There is intense drama and passing terror. Then, the storm clouds part and bright sunshine returns. Playful scales rise and fall. The final bars open up a majestic sonic vista.
The third movement (Allegretto grazioso—Molto vivace) opens with a restless and mysterious melody, tinged with a sense of melancholy. It unfolds as a shadowy waltz in 3/8 time. This music is not so much a traditional scherzo as a freewheeling intermezzo, as we might find in one of Brahms’ symphonies. As the movement progresses, Czech folk rhythms percolate. As you listen, try to connect with the dancelike sense of rhythmic “groove.” Sometimes it propels the music forward like an incessant and intricate motor. At other times, it is shaped by the bubbling pizzicato in the low strings. Listen carefully for the passage in which the timpani superimposes its own conflicting rhythm. The coda shifts into a sparkling duple meter which leaps forward with an infectious childlike innocence.
The final movement begins with a rousing trumpet fanfare. When the legendary conductor, Rafael Kubelík, arrived at this passage during a rehearsal, he famously told the orchestra, “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle—they always call to the dance!” Indeed, the final movement is an adventurous series of dance variations. The main theme begins slowly with grace and dignity, and then kicks into gear as a boisterous celebration. The theme’s first three notes outline the ascending triad we heard in the flute’s birdcall motif in the first movement.
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony is filled with an effortless stream of melody. “Melodies simply pour out of me,” said the composer as he worked on the Symphony. Yet, in the middle of this final movement, we get an exhilarating episode of motivic development that might remind you of Beethoven. Listen to the way the motivic seed we hear in the transition at 31:21 takes on a life of its own in the intense passage which follows. From these heights, the final variations fall back into a quiet and intimate dreamscape. The lights are dimming. The adventure is drawing to a close, and there is a sadness in saying, “goodbye.” This is the same halting, wistful nostalgia we experience in the final moments of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. But then, the boisterous celebration resumes with one final, magnificent display of musical fireworks, and the Symphony ends in a flash of sunshine.
Manfred Honeck leads the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in this exceptional 2015 performance:
Five Great Recordings
- Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra store.acousticsounds.com
- Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra Arkivmusic.com
- George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra Arkivmusic.com
- Rafael Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic Arkivmusic.com
- Colin Davis and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra discogs.com