Dvořák – Symphony No. 8

Antonín Dvořák in 1890

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a remarkably talented composer, and though he is best known for his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, there is so much more to explore. Here is one writer, at least, who believes that his renown has not yet reached its peak.

One Dvořák compact disc that soars high above the crowd is the October 26, 1984 recording by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 and Scherzo capriccioso, released by Decca London in 1986. These are superlative performances.

This recording is still available through Presto Music, along with Dvořák’s other best symphonies, Nos. 7 & 9, and you might be able to find a copy of the original recording through Amazon, or elsewhere.

Dvořák composed and orchestrated his Symphony No. 8 in just two and a half months (August 26 to November 9) in 1889 at his summer resort in Vysoká u Příbramě, Bohemia (Czech Republic, today). The 8th is a high-energy work, cheerful and optimistic, with minor key excursions adding depth and emotional weight. Each of the four movements exhibit a tremendous variety of thematic material, much of it inspired by Bohemian folk music.

The first performance of the Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88 was on February 2, 1890 in Prague. During Dvořák’s extended stay in the United States, 1892-1895, he conducted the Exposition Orchestra (the Chicago Orchestra—later the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—expanded to 114 players) in a rousing performance of the 8th symphony and two other of his works at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The August 12, 1893 performance was enthusiastically received by an audience estimated to number at least 8,000.

At that time, Dvořák’s symphonies were numbered in order of publication, and the first four were published after the last five, hence Symphony No. 4 = Symphony No. 8 today

Here are samples from each of the four movements, as performed by Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in the fabulous recording recommended here.

Symphony No. 8 – Antonín Dvořák: I. Allegro con brio [excerpt]
Symphony No. 8 – Antonín Dvořák: II. Adagio [excerpt]
Symphony No. 8 – Antonín Dvořák: III. Allegretto grazioso [excerpt]
Symphony No. 8 – Antonín Dvořák: IV. Allegro, ma non troppo [excerpt]

This disc finishes out with another superb work by Antonín Dvořák, the Scherzo capriccioso in D♭ major, op. 66, written six years earlier in 1883. It also received its first performance in Prague, on May 16, 1883.

“Scherzo capriccioso” translates to “lively, playful character, with animated rhythm” (scherzo) and “capricious” (capriccioso). In other words, a capricious scherzo. And indeed it is—Enjoy!

Scherzo capriccioso – Antonín Dvořák [excerpt]

Sibelius Violin Concerto

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) aspired to be a virtuoso violinist, but abandoned that career because he felt that he had begun his “training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.” But it must have been some consolation that his violin concerto of 1904/1905—his only concerto—is one of the most inspired works of that genre in the repertoire.

There are many fine recordings of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but one I am especially fond of is a 1951 recording with Isaac Stern and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.

Here’s the conclusion of the work, nicely illustrating the passion and energy of this performance by Stern and Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic despite the primitive recording technology available at the time. Just goes to show that there were some remarkable recordings made more than 70 years ago!

Conclusion of the 1951 recording of Isaac Stern playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, conducting

While we’re on the topic of violin concertos, here are the best I’ve heard, in chronological order of their composition. Seek them out and enjoy!

Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 – Johann Sebastian Bach (c. 1730)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61 – Ludwig van Beethoven (1806)

Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 – Felix Mendelssohn (1844)

Violin Concerto No. 8 in D major, op. 99 – Charles-Auguste de Bériot (c. 1845)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 26 – Max Bruch (1867)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77 – Johannes Brahms (1878)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35 – Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1878)

Violin Concerto in A minor, op. 53 – Antonín Dvořák (1879)

Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 – Jean Sibelius (1905)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19 – Sergei Prokofiev (1917)

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63 – Sergei Prokofiev (1935)

Violin Concerto, op. 14 – Samuel Barber (1939)

Violin Concerto in D minor – Aram Khachaturian (1940)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35 – Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1945)

Violin Concerto in C major, op. 48 – Dmitry Kabalevsky (1948)

And, outstanding violin concerto movements:

Intermezzo (Poco adagio) [2nd & final movement] from Violin Concerto, op. 33 – Carl Nielsen (1911)

Sicilienne (Andantino) [2nd movement] from Concierto de estío, for violin and orchestra – Joaquín Rodrigo (1943)

Curious as to why so many violin concertos are written in the key of D major? I was.

“D major is well-suited to violin music because of the structure of the instrument, which is tuned G D A E. The open strings resonate sympathetically with the D string, producing a sound that is especially brilliant. This is also the case with all other orchestral strings.” – Wikipedia entry for D major