Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) stands alongside Smetana as a founder of the new Czech music. His nine symphonies, presented here for the first time as a filmed cycle, show Dvořák to be a thoroughly individual and original composer whose symphonic concepts and wealth of musical expression are often surprising, representing a distinctly different engagement with the formal legacy of the nineteenth century from one symphony to the next.
The first two symphonies are clearly youthful works, both written in 1865 when Dvořák was 24 years old. He still follows Classical symphonic form – Beethoven is very much the young composer’s role model – but is already interested in developing the form further. In his Third (1873) and Fourth (1874) he augments the orchestra with harps and triangles and with big drums and cymbals, not least on account of his encounter with the New German School and the formative influence of Wagner and Liszt. Written only a year later, the Fifth Symphony (1875) marks Dvořák’s growing mastery of the form. It is the first of the five great symphonies that were published in his lifetime. Dvořák’s musical language was displaying ever stronger elements of Slavic folklore, and it was as a “Slav composer” that the hitherto unrecognized Dvořák was introduced by Johannes Brahms to the international music world and to the Berlin publisher Simrock, who went on to publish his next symphony. Dvořák wrote what we now know as his Sixth Symphony in 1880 for Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic, and it marked the inauguration of Dvořák’s international career. He wrote his Seventh Symphony for the London Philharmonic Society; it received its premiere in London in 1885 and was a stupendous success. The Eighth, Dvořák’s thanks for his appointment as Professor of Composition at the Prague Conservatory, marks the culmination of his symphonic oeuvre together with the Ninth – his “New World” Symphony – written during his three-year stay in New York as Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. The Ninth is undoubtedly his most popular symphonic work. American influences are obvious, but it remains fundamentally Czech.
The Czech Philharmonic regards Dvořák’s symphonic output as an essential part of its repertoire. All the symphonies in this cycle were performed in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum in Prague, one of Europe’s oldest and loveliest concert halls and also where Dvořák conducted the first concert by today’s Czech Philharmonic in 1896. Jiří Bělohlávek, Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, is considered an established authority on the Slavic music of his homeland. For his recordings of music of Slavic composers he received the Gramophone Award for Orchestral Recording in 2012 and 2013, the first conductor since Herbert von Karajan to be given the award two years running.
Alongside the performances in concert, the symphonic cycle is also presented in a special interpretative version in which conductor Jiří Bělohlávek explains how each symphony came to be written and highlights the key musical features of the individual movements.
The cycle also features a documentation of Dvořák’s life and symphonic achievement. Jiří Bělohlávek visits important places in the composer’s life, interviews experts and key figures and investigates how his symphonies came to be so successful.