Symphonic Variations

Antonín Dvořák

Symphonic Variations

B70, Op. 78

About this work

During four days in the middle of January 1877, Antonín Dvorák composed the three part-songs for male voices (now known as B. 66), the first two of which are settings of Moravian folk poems. While the third song of B. 66, "Huslaf" (The Fiddler), cannot boast a folk origin, it can claim a much greater distinction than either of its two sister-pieces: seven months after its composition, Dvorák used its music as the theme for his Symphonic Variations for orchestra, Op. 78. The Symphonic Variations, composed in August and September 1877, were premiered in Prague within three months of Dvorák putting his signature to the manuscript. The work was almost immediately thrown into the pit of neglect, however -- Dvorák's publishers were uninterested in buying it, and, until the famous conductor Hans Richter took the work under his wing in the late 1880s, it remained a stranger to the concert hall. The now-famous success of Richter's 1887 London and Vienna performances of the Symphonic Variations more than made up for this neglect, and the work, while perhaps nowhere near Dvorák's best-known symphonies and string quartets in popularity, has since joined Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56 as the most frequently played of all orchestral variations-sets.

Following the initial presentation of the 20-measure, C major theme, there are 27 variations and an extended Allegro maestoso finale. The theme itself is wonderfully suited for the purpose of variation-making: the irregular lengths of its three phrases (the first and third of which are basically identical, making a miniature ABA design) -- 7, 6, 7, respectively -- help to avoid metric monotony and provide all kinds of possibilities for expansion and condensation, and the chromatic descents and rises of the melody provide useful stepping-stones that are immediately recognizable no matter how far from the original theme Dvorák's development might take us. At first, Dvorák tinkers with the theme very little -- countermelodies are added, textures take new shapes. But as the variations progress, the theme becomes a fountain of material for extended inventions, some of which reach several dozen measures in length. The finale, as per tradition, exposes the theme as a fugue-subject before bursting forth into a vigorous and ever-faster orchestral workout.