Symphony No.8

Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No.8 in G major

B163, Op. 88 • “English”

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Dvorák had been embarrassed when mature works were issued as early ones, while his nationalism had been offended by the persistent Germanizing of his first name as "Anton." In 1889, no longer a naïf provincial, Dvorák chose to interpret the offer of 1,000 Deutschmarks -- 5,000 less than he had paid for the instantly popular Seventh -- as publisher Fritz Simrock's first right of refusal, and sold his new Eighth to the British firm of Novello, who published it as No. 4. Novello considered it a privilege to buy the work; Simrock never repeated his mistake.

When Cambridge University honored Dvorák as a Doctor of Music in 1892, he submitted the Eighth Symphony as his obligatory "exercise." Thus it came to be called the "English" Symphony for many years, despite its obvious Czech grammar and diction -- Dvorák's declaration of independence, in fact, from Germanic influences in the first seven symphonies.

Dvorák united all four sections of the Eighth with a rising three-note figure, first heard in the opening measure of the opening movement; from this come the main themes there and in the finale. The work abounds in structural symmetries and subtleties, which reveal themselves once one becomes familiar with its charming Czech-rooted melodies and rhythms. Organization of this caliber is the handiwork of a master composer in complete control of what he wants to say and how to say it.

A melody in G minor, which returns later on before the development section and again (albeit altered in mood) before the recapitulation, is introduced in the Allegron con brio before G major arrives with the main theme, bird-like in character as played on the flute. Dvorák moves to E major for a gently contrasting second theme, then to B minor for a march-like third subject; but G major prevails at the end.

In the Adagio, duple meter replaces common time, while the key of C replaces G (C being the dominant of G). An ABAB structure begins quietly in C minor, but metamorphoses in the repeated sections suggest a variation-pattern with a wistful character.

Dvorák shocked purists by writing an Allegretto grazioso waltz movement, as Tchaikovsky had done in his Fifth Symphony a year earlier. It is, however, unmistakably a Slavonic waltz in G minor, whose G major trio lends itself even less to ballroom dancing, yet is a dance. After a repeat of the song section, a fast coda in 2/4 time sets up both the meter and the key of the finale.

Beethoven might have applauded Dvorák's theme and variations structure within a song and trio frame of the final Allegro ma non troppo. Following a trumpet fanfare, a two-part theme emerges whose halves are repeated, then four variations, all in G major. The trio is a three-part march in C minor, after which the fanfare returns with four more variations in tow.