From the Podium: Musings from the Maestro ”

by John Zoltek, Glacier Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor

John Zoltek
Glacier Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor

Dvořák’s Cultural Fusion

The Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák is universally acknowledged as one of the most important composers from the late 19th Century. His most popular works in our country are his ultra-famous 9th Symphony in E minor “From the New World” his Cello Concerto in B minor, Slavonic Dances and chamber works like the String Quartet in F Major “American”. Sadly, the popularity of these works is to the exclusion of many other masterpieces including the violin and piano concertos the Symphony No. 8 in G, his Czech folklore infused opera Rusalka and many others. The intense Symphony No. 7 in D  minor, programed on our upcoming Danubia concert in November is one of these less frequently performed and overlooked masterworks.

The 7th Symphony in D minor composed in 1885  (originally published as no. 2)was in fact the first of his last three and greatest symphonies. In my view, the Symphony No. 7 illustrates the direct musical influence of Beethoven (1st and 3rd movements of the 7th) and Brahms (2nd and 4th movements of the 7th). These influences are spiced with Bohemian/Moravian folk roots and urban salon music making Dvořák’s symphonic style in general a reflection of his 19th cultural milieu. The composer’s successful ability to seamlessly fuse these elements is one of the reasons why his music occupies a unique niche in the repertoire. It has certainly stood the test of time as his music continues to be performed by admiring musicians and enjoyed by diverse audiences around the globe.

Dvořák was the most important and prolific of a short list of significant Czech composers who were part of the then emerging Czech music nationalism of the late 19th century. The other composers still associated with this artistic/political movement are Smetana (Ma Vlast), the more cryptic Leoš Janáček (one of my favorite composers), and to lesser extent, Josef Suk (Dvořák’s son in-law). These composers in their own way consciously sought to develop their musical style and give voice to their ethnicity that for many centuries was dominated by the political, artistic and aesthetic supremacy of the Austro-German culture. In fact, Dvořák’s music was for a time published using the Germanic form of his name Anton, rather than Antonín, the Czech version.  Perhaps this made the new composer more appealing to the marketplace. But it also belies the cultural tenor and political reality of the times and a reflection of the appetite for German high culture. Fortunately, Dvořák’s wider recognition as a composer and first successful publications were largely the result of the advocacy of the established and influential Johannes Brahms. Brahms became an important friend and advisor to Dvořák. But over time, following the popularity of his Slavonic Dances, the depth and quality of the younger composer’s music and substantial output provided a momentum of acceptance on its own. Historically, Dvořák is now considered the foremost of the Czech composers.  

Listening to Dvořák’s music provides us with evidence of his mastery, invention and innate ability to fashion distinct ways of fusing musical material. His combination of the Classical-Romantic style championed by Brahms and others with the rhythms and pentatonic based folk motives and melodies of his homeland results in a very distinctly flavored music, one that provides a palpable experience of Dvořák’s aesthetic predilections and his time in history. 


For me, the privilege of preparing and performing Dvořák’s orchestral music provides me with an intimate glance into his substantial craftsmanship. The compositional references to other composers are abundantly clear. One can see the links to the past and established practices as well as the expansion of Dvořák’s own amalgamated musical thinking. An interesting question is whether Dvořák’s stylistic fusion was a calculated effort or did it flow naturally, as his own unique voice, from his personal and cultural experiences, language and admiration for classical, folk and popular salon music. His music too has a strong and deeply nostalgic quality mostly derived from many of the lilting melodies and dance rhythms that seem to spin like dreams from the café culture of late 19th Century Central Europe.  The juxtaposition of these nostalgic elements with the more purely classical motivic invention and architecture inherited from Beethoven, Brahms and others makes for an active and engaging interplay of musical elements foundational to Dvořák’s unique cultural fusion and supreme musical voice.

By Maestro John Zoltek


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