Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 1 in C minor

by Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, in Prague
Composed from February 14 to March 24, 1865
Premiered on October 4, 1936, in Brno, Czech Republic conducted by Milan Sachs
Performance Time: Approximately 50 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

During his early teens Dvořák lived in Zlonice, a small town northeast of Prague where he received his initial musical training. At age 16 he moved to Prague to study at the Organ School; he began playing in orchestras, teaching, and composing (he later destroyed most of his early pieces). A career path that eventually changed his fortunes was to enter competitions. Although the details are not clear, it seems he tried at age 23 to enter a German competition with his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, which he composed in less than six weeks during early 1865.

Dvořák did not win (although ten years later he was awarded an Austrian stipend that launched his international career) and the symphony was never returned. Decades later, when some of his students at the Prague Conservatory asked him what he had done about it, Dvořák supposedly replied: “I sat down and wrote another.” And indeed the Symphony in B-flat major, now known as the Second, dates from just a few months later in 1865. That symphony was the first which Dvořák numbered and assigned an opus number—he later revised it to premiere in 1888. But he never heard the First Symphony performed and said that he had destroyed it. The piece had, in fact, survived. In the 1880s a young scholar named Rudolf Dvořák (no relation) bought the manuscript at a second-hand bookstore in Leipzig. Only in 1923 did word of the lost symphony emerge, although the work was not premiered until 1936 in Brno (in an abridged version) and the score remained unpublished until 1961.

The symphony is known as “The Bells of Zlonice,” although that title appears nowhere in the manuscript. Dvořák supposedly referred to it as such and commenters often point to bell-like passages, especially in the first and final movements. Dvořák originally planned a three-movement work to which he added the third movement scherzo. The ominous key of C minor is that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to which the work owes various debts, not least, as František Bartoš observed, in the overall trajectory from darkness to light, doubt to affirmation. Dvořák wrote the symphony during a period of intense infatuation with a young actress named Josefina Čermáková who performed in a theater where he played and to whom he gave piano lessons (he eventually married her sister). Although Dvořák thought the symphony lost, he did not forget its music, various ideas of which he later recast in his first orchestral Rhapsody, Op. 14 (1874) and piano cycle Silhouettes, Op. 8 (1879).

Christopher H. Gibbs is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.