Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony

Program Notes

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”
Aram Khachaturian: Violin Concerto in D Minor
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

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Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”

Work composed: 1917
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 25, 1999; James DePreist, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 13 minutes

At age 17, full of youthful arrogance, Sergei Prokofiev asked, rhetorically, “What can be worse than a long symphony? To me, the ideal of a perfect size for a symphony is one that runs for twenty, maximum thirty minutes.” True to his word, Prokofiev’s first symphony, known as the “Classical” Symphony, is approximately thirteen minutes long. Within its brief confines, the “Classical” Symphony sparkles with wit, style, and mirth, an homage to the music of Joseph Haydn that inspired it.

Prokofiev described the genesis of the “Classical” Symphony in his autobiography:

“Until then [1917], I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that thematic material composed away from the piano was often better … such a piece would have more natural and transparent colors … I had come to understand a great deal about Haydn’s technique from [Nikolai] Tcherepnin [at the St. Petersburg Conservatory], and thought it would be less scary to embark on this difficult pianoless journey if I were on familiar stylistic ground. It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have retained his own style while absorbing something new at the same time. This was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style.”

Prokofiev begins by pairing a standard first-movement structure with unmistakably 20th-century harmonies. Just after the strings’ ascending explosion in D major, Prokofiev abruptly moves to C major, a distinctly un-Classical harmonic choice. The exaggerated daintiness of the second theme – staccato octaves ornamented with violin grace notes, accompanied by bassoon – reflects Prokofiev’s humor as he gently mocks Classical norms.

The Larghetto opens with a delicate violin melody. One of Prokofiev’s goals was to write a symphony without the overwrought romanticism typical of the symphonic music of his time. In this movement, he succeeds brilliantly: there is not a shred of emotionalism anywhere. Instead, we hear intricate, lyrical interplay among the instruments, with textures as transparent and crystal clear as a freshly washed window.

Instead of a typical Classical minuet, Prokofiev features a gavotte, a Baroque dance with a gentle galumphing beat. The trio, a prim musette for winds with an accompanying drone, is another departure from Classical convention, and before we know it, Prokofiev tears into the final movement with breathtaking speed. In all the hustle and bustle, it is easy to overlook the daunting technical skill required to play this music. The Molto vivace tempo never slackens, and Prokofiev’s dynamic contrasts add still more excitement as the music ends with a triumphant flourish.


Aram Khachaturian

Violin Concerto in D Minor

Work composed:  1940
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 14, 2011; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Baiba Skride, violin
Instrumentation: solo violin, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, tambourine, harp and strings
Estimated duration: 35 minutes

“I wrote music as though on a wave of happiness; my whole being was in a state of joy, for I was awaiting the birth of my son. And this feeling, this love of life, was transmitted to the music.” – Aram Khachaturian, on writing his Violin Concerto

During the summer of 1940, as Aram Khachaturian excitedly anticipated his son’s birth, he also worked on a violin concerto he was writing for David Oistrakh. As the concerto took shape, Oistrakh gave Khachaturian technical suggestions and overall advice, which proved invaluable. The two men were close friends as well as creative partners; each man’s esteem for the other was so great that Oistrakh, who described Khachaturian as possessing“the feelings of a true virtuoso and inspired artist,”credited Khachaturian’s concerto for Oistrakh’s renown as a violinist. Khachaturian, in turn, insisted that Oistrakh’s performances and recordings of the violin concerto were central to its fame, inside the Soviet Union and abroad. Aleksandr Gauk led Oistrakh and the USSR State Symphony in the premiere of the concerto on November 16, 1940, at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, as part of a ten-day Soviet music festival.

The Violin Concerto was Khachaturian’s second foray into concerto writing, and, as he discovered while composing his Piano Concerto four years earlier, he had an affinity for the genre. “Probably thirst for ‘concerto’ music, for the colorful-virtuoso style, is inherent to my creative individuality,” Khachaturian explained. “I am fond of the task of creating a composition where the cheerful principle of free competition between a virtuoso-soloist and a symphony orchestra prevails.” Khachaturian finished the concerto in just two months, and later remembered, “I worked without effort. Sometimes my thoughts and imagination outraced the hand that was covering the staff with notes. The themes came to me in such abundance that I had a hard time putting them in some order.”

Officially a Soviet citizen, Khachaturian was fiercely proud of his Armenian heritage. “My whole life, everything that I have created, belongs to the Armenian people,” he declared. Fellow composer Dmitri Kabalevsky observed, “The especially attractive features of Khachaturian’s music are in its roots in national folk fountainheads. The captivating rhythmic diversity of dances of the peoples of Transcaucasia and the inspired improvisations of the ashugs [Armenia’s native bards] – such are the sources from which have sprung the composer’s creative endeavors.”

The Andante sostenuto reflects this ashug style. A bassoon solo introduces the quasi-recitative melodies, in the manner of improvised song-speech. The outer movements, by contrast, are full of the rhythmic fire and colorful brilliance of Armenian folk dance. As a unifying summation, Khachaturian reprises a theme from the first movement in the finale.


Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 

Work composed: 1889
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: October 14, 2015; Paul Ghun Kim, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.
Estimated duration: 36 minutes

From its inception, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony in G Major was more than a composition; in musical terms it represented everything that made Dvořák a proud Bohemian. Trouble started when Dvořák’s German publisher, Fritz Simrock, wanted to publish the symphony’s movement titles and Dvořák’s name in German translation. This might seem like an unimportant detail over which to haggle, but for Dvořák it was a matter of cultural life and death. Since the age of 26, Dvořák had been a reluctant citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty. Under the Hapsburgs, Czech language and culture were vigorously repressed. Dvořák, an ardent Czech patriot who resented the Germanic norms mandated by the Empire, categorically refused Simrock’s request.

For his part, Simrock was not especially enthusiastic about publishing Dvořák’s symphonies, which didn’t sell as well as Dvořák’s Slavonic dances and piano music. Simrock and Dvořák also haggled over the composer’s fee; Simrock had paid 3,000 marks for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, but inexplicably and insultingly offered only 1,000 for the Eighth Symphony. Outraged, Dvořák offered his Symphony No. 8 to the London firm Novello, which published it in 1890.

The Eighth Symphony broke new ground from the moment of its premiere, which Dvořák conducted in Prague on February 2, 1890. Op. 88 was, as the composer explained, meant to be “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” This “new way” refers to Dvořák’s musical transformation of the Czech countryside he loved into a unique sonic landscape. Within the music, Dvořák included sounds from nature, particularly hunting horn calls and birdsongs played by various wind instruments. Biographer Hanz-Hubert Schönzeler observed, “When one walks in those forests surrounding Dvořák’s country home on a sunny summer’s day, with the birds singing and the leaves of trees rustling in a gentle breeze, one can virtually hear the music.”

Serenity floats over the Adagio. As in the first movement, Dvořák plays with tonality; E-flat major slides into its darker counterpart, C minor. Dvořák was most at home in rural settings, and the music of this Adagio evokes the tranquil landscapes of the garden at Vysoká, his country home. In a manner similar to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the music suggests an idyllic summer’s day interrupted by a cloudburst, after which the sun reappears, striking sparkles from the raindrops.

During a rehearsal of the trumpet fanfare in the last movement, conductor Rafael Kubelik declared, “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!” After this opening summons, cellos sound the main theme. Quieter variations on the cello melody feature solo flute and strings, and the symphony ends with an exuberant brassy blast.


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com