Symphony No. 6, Op. 60 (1880)
By Anton Dvorák
Written for the concert Admiration and Emulation: The Friendship of Brahms and Dvorák, performed on May 14, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
The similarities between the Brahms Second and Dvorák Sixth are striking. Both symphonies are in the key of D major. Brahms marked his movements Allegro non troppo, Adagio non troppo, Allegretto Grazioso, and Allegro con spirito. Dvorák followed with Allegro non tanto, Adagio, Presto, and Allegro con spirito. (These designations for the first and last movements are nowhere else found in Dvorák’s symphonic output). Both first movements, in triple meter, begin with a sequential move to E minor, and the last movements, which both feature note against note counterpoint in rather strict quarter notes, employ similar harmonic patterns. There can be no doubt about Dvorák’s debt to the older composer, reminding us that he was an inveterate modeler, borrowing liberally from Wagner, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, and Smetana, just to mention a few. In this case, though, with similar key choice, harmonic gestures, and movement titles, it is unlikely that Dvorák wished to conceal the connection, indeed, it seems more like an hommagia á Brahms than a plagiarism de Brahms.
It is not surprising that the movement which is “different” from Brahms is the third — Dvorák was not to steal from Brahms’s Allegretto Grazioso until he composed his Symphony No. 8. The rather conspicuous Scherzo of the Sixth is marked Furiant, giving the symphony somewhat of a self-proclaimed “Czech” tone. Thus it might be fitting, but ultimately wrong, to assert that with this gesture, Dvorák willingly proclaimed himself the Czech Brahms. Fitting because of the similarities mentioned above; wrong because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what Dvorák really wanted to be was the Czech Wagner.
At the very least, there was a kind of conflict Dvorák became infatuated with Wagner in the early 1860s while playing viola in the orchestra of the Provisional Theater. In the 1870s and early 1880s, Brahms became first a stern but admiring mentor and gradually a friend. But despite the assertions of most of Dvorák’s biographers, he never “recovered” from his reverence for Wagner, and showed this by renouncing the idea of “absolute music” in the last years of his life, turning to tone poems and operas. The timing of this shift coincided rather oddly with the death of Brahms.
Perhaps this struggle can be heard a bit in the Sixth Symphony, despite its strong, Brahmsian tinge. The second statement of the main theme, with its overpowering punctuation by the full brasses recalls Dvorák’s favorite piece, the Tannhäuser Overture, while the Scherzo, with its Bacchanalian gusto, is more Nibelungs and Walküres than anything from the world of Brahms. In his excellent book on Brahms’s Second, Late Idyll, Reinhold Brinkmann refers to the Dvorák symphony as a work which “clearly follows in Brahms’s footsteps, but more brightly, almost unproblematically.” Yet, when we listen to the painted outburst in the middle of Dvorák’s Adagio, or the syncopated climaxes of the magnificent outer movement codas, we cannot agree with the assessment. Just as Brinkmann finds hidden melancholy penetrating Brahms’s idyll, adding greatly to the depth of his symphony, so we may hear in the Sixth something profound in Dvorák’s desire to be both Brahms and Wagner at the same time.