Back On My Bullshit* (*Extremely Pleasant Dvořák Symphonies)

I would love to have a normal, even neutral reaction to a Dvořák symphony, but it’s simply impossible for me.

By Anoniem (Foto in Antonín Dvořák museum) – PD old, Public Domain, Link

When I writing this column over a year ago, I began with my favorite symphony of all time, Antonín Dvořák’s From The New World. I have tried my best during that time not to write about Dvořák too often, though I couldn’t help but laugh when a handful of his Slavonic Dances showed up on my Spotify Top Songs of 2017 playlist (sandwiched between Liability and New Rules lmao). This past week, I saw the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform his Symphony No. 5, and I realized there wasn’t a chance in hell I wouldn’t write about it.

You see, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5 (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, 1993) is exceedingly pleasant. Written almost twenty years before From The New World, there are hints of the same triumphant spirit and intrinsically joyful melodies in this earlier work. At the time, this symphony was considered the composer’s first (his first four were not published until after he died) which would have made From The New World his unofficial fifth. I mean, that doesn’t matter. It’s just an interesting fact! The ninth is still better but this one is wonderful nonetheless.

Dvořák kicks the piece off with a small fanfare played by the woodwinds. The symphony announces itself politely, situates you in its reality, before a rush of strings ushers in its core melody at the 46-second mark. It’s hard not to feel wholesome listening to this. It’s an undeniably cheerful piece. There’s conflict, sure, but nothing that feels insurmountable in the context of the piece. Though it will make me sound like a huge nerd, I couldn’t help but smile my way through this first movement in particular. One time, I had a roommate in a living situation that I did not choose who used to, any time he’d see me leave to go out, say, “what are you gonna go do, some nerd shit?” To which I was like, “…. yes, that’s my whole deal.”

The Andante con moto is not too tragic, but it is, no doubt, wistful, if not also a little romantic. The strings are rich and poised. It’s a poem, really: formed and formal in its writing but expressive nonetheless. Dvořák gives the cellos plenty to do, and for that, I’m grateful. Especially at the 6:27 mark—with fluttery support from none other than the flutes—the cello refrain is so lush and full. Its Scherzo begins not unlike the opening movement with a little fanfare on the woodwinds backed by the cellos. But once it hits the :53 second mark, it’s off and dancing. This is the type of third movement that can be expected from Dvořák: light, fanciful, drawing on traditional Czech music. It would have felt very at home in the midst of his Slavonic Dances. I’ll even tolerate the very charming use of triangle.

The Finale – Allegro molto begins with a fair bit of conflict, because it’s true, you can’t feel entirely wholesome throughout a forty-minute piece of music. Once the tumult dies down, however, I’m once again overjoyed at the cello melody at the :39 second mark. There’s just such a pleasant balance between all of the instruments in this symphony. Dvořák is wonderful at allowing every section to have their moment. The symphony exists in service of the instruments here. I would love to have a normal, even neutral reaction to a Dvořák symphony, but it’s simply impossible for me. As the piece grew toward the end, it filled me with a distinct joy. I knew the melody, I could hum it, even, and feeling it build to something bigger than itself was so triumphant. And though it’s a little hard to hear distinctly in this recording, please believe me when I say this piece allows its timpanist to go the fuck off. It absorbs you completely, and when it ends, you instantly miss it.