Dvořák’s eighth symphony is “a pastoral work filled with elements of national dances, songs, and scenes … despite the academic purposes for which it came to be used.” Musicologist A. Peter Brown provides here two aspects of this symphony and of the composer worth knowing about. Even though a few of Dvořák’s earlier symphonies would be very welcomed by audiences, the last three symphonies are by far his most commonly performed works in this form. They are each of a very different character. Number seven in D minor is firmly entrenched in the learned, harmonically and formally sophisticated Viennese symphonic tradition, while number nine, “The New World Symphony,” written and first performed here in our own country and employing what were then called “negro melodies” looks to the future.
Sandwiched in between these two, Dvořák’s eighth symphony is his homage to the music of his own Bohemian homeland. Although also sophisticated in technique, he cast aside some traditions of the classical symphony and decided to do things his own way. He bases the first movement on a plethora of melodies rather than just the usual two contrasting themes. The traditional fast movement scherzo is replaced with a Czech dance, the furiant. Although there a few dark moments, the pastoral description is totally apt and generally the landscapes are sunny.
Dvořák was selected in 1890 by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph, for a chair in the Czech Academy for Sciences, Literature and the Arts, and in 1891 received an honorary doctoral degree from Cambridge University. This symphony was performed on both of these occasions. In spite of his origins in an obscure corner of the Empire, he had become a very important composer known all over Europe and in America. Like Tchaikovsky, he had from the start been pigeonholed as a “nationalist” composer, a term never applied to Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms who employed folk elements as well, but then they were of Austro-German origin, the dominant musical culture in the nineteenth century. Dvořák could choose this pastoral symphony with elements of national songs and dances to celebrate his international notoriety because he had achieved international success.