Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 is the music of sunny Bohemian pastures. Warm, effortlessly flowing melodies meet the fiery, exuberant rhythms of a Czech folk dance. A sense of blissful, bucolic grandeur permeates the entire Symphony. As the biographer Otakar Sourek noted, “it breathes the sweet fragrance and unspoiled beauty of Czech woods and meadows.”
Dvořák’s first five symphonies can be heard as exercises in the mastery of the form. In the Sixth Symphony (first published as Symphony No. 1), we hear the composer’s distinct, mature voice blossom. At the same time, the work clearly pays homage to the music of Brahms—especially Brahms’ Second Symphony (written three years earlier), which is set in the same key of D major with similarly pastoral overtones. The spirit of Beethoven and Schubert are not far behind.
Brahms served as a great mentor for Dvořák. The older composer wrote enthusiastically to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, “Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor!” Brahms was present when, in 1879, Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic in Dvořák’s Third Slavonic Rhapsody. The following year, Dvořák set to work on the Sixth Symphony with the intention that it would be premiered in Vienna. Anti-Czech sentiment may have led the players of the Vienna Philharmonic to override Richter and reject the work. The premiere came, instead, on March 25, 1881 in Prague with Adolf Čech leading the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
In the opening measures of the first movement, the first theme seems to “compose itself” through a series of motivic fragments which are tossed back and forth between the flutes and cellos in a musical conversation. Soon the theme is heard in the whole orchestra as a majestic declaration. Listen for the moment when a feeling of two invades the prevailing triple meter, leading to exhilarating rhythmic conflict (0:47). The second theme, introduced by the oboe, shimmers with pastorale colors. The development section moves into mysterious, suspenseful territory before embarking on an adventurous contrapuntal joyride. The coda climaxes with a triumphant restatement of the opening motif in the trumpets and horns. Their open fifth voicing, punctuated by drumbeats in the timpani, evokes the age-old sounds of bugles and hunting horns echoing through the countryside.
The meandering woodwind lines in the opening of the Adagio pay homage to the opening measures of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What follows is a dreamy nocturne filled with wistful nostalgia. Otakar Sourek described it as music which “sings of the magic of a summer’s night.” It unfolds as a slow rondo in which adventurous (sometimes tumultuous) episodes always return “home” to the expansive principal theme.
The third movement pulls us into the vigorous Bohemian folk dance of the furiant. It’s a wild, boisterous dance filled with jolting accents which pull us constantly between duple and triple meter. In the final, swirling statement of the dance, the timpani briefly adds a new, terrifying layer of metric complexity, as if humorously challenging us to maintain our balance (3:04). The trio section delivers a serene, sun-filled respite.
The Finale begins with a hushed allusion to the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony. Soon Dvořák’s distinct voice breaks through, moving the music in exciting new directions. Amid dense, joyful counterpoint there are echoes of the rising fourth motif which opened the first movement (3:17). The coda surges forward to bring the Sixth Symphony to a celebratory conclusion.
Here is the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1991 recording with Christoph von Dohnányi:
I. Allegro non tanto:
III. Scherzo (Furiant: Presto):
IV. Finale (Allegro con spirito):
Five Great Recordings
Featured Image: Castle Krivoklat in the Czech Republic