For a while, the numbering of Dvořák's symphonies was rather unclear; the
"New World" symphony has alternately been called the 5th, 8th and 9th. In
this article they are numbered according to the order in which they were
written (this is the normal numbering system used today). Dvořák himself
numbered his 9th Symphony as "number 5," in a superstitious attempt to cheat
the tendency for composers to die after composing their ninth symphonies.
The trick did not work, and Dvořák died before completing a tenth.
Unlike many other composers who shied away from the symphony until their
mature years (notably his mentor Johannes Brahms), Dvořák wrote his
Symphony No. 1 in C minor when he was only 24 years of age. Subtitled
The Bells of Zlonice after a village in Dvořák's native Bohemia, it is
clearly the work of an inexperienced composer, yet shows a lot of promise.
The scherzo is considered to be the strongest movement, but the others are
not uninteresting. There are many formal similarities with the 5th Symphony
of Ludwig van Beethoven, yet harmonically and in his instrumentation he is
more a romantic composer, following Franz Schubert.
Not very remarkable, but not of low quality either, is Symphony No. 2
in B flat major, still looking up to Beethoven. But Symphony No. 3 in
E flat major clearly shows the sudden and profound impact of Dvořák's
recent acquaintance with the music of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.
The influence of Wagner was not lasting, however; it can hardly be heard
anymore in Symphony No. 4 in D minor. This last of Dvořák's early
symphonies is also widely regarded as the best. Again the scherzo is the
highlight, but already Dvořák shows his absolute mastery of all formal
Dvořák's middle symphonies, Symphony No. 5 in F major (published
as No. 3) and Symphony No. 6 in D major (published as No. 1), are
happy, pastoral works. They are not as famous as their later cousins, though
many consider them just as good. The Fifth is the more pastoral work,
although there is a dark slow movement which borrows (or, rather, steals)
the first four notes of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto for the main theme. The
Sixth shows a very strong resemblance to the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms,
particularly the outer movements.
Symphony No. 7 in D minor of 1885 is the most Romantic era
symphony by the composer. The work draws inspiration from Brahms and
Tchaikovsky reflecting in the political struggle in Prague. In that sense,
it is an intensely patriotic work that balances intense calm with an
underlying turmoil. The work, however, is not a programmatic work. The
structure is the most ambiguous of his symphonies. The 7th could hardly be a
starker contrast to Symphony No. 8 in G major (published as No. 4), a
work which Karl Schumann (in booklet notes to a recording of all the
symphonies by Rafael Kubelik) compares to Gustav Mahler. Together with his
last symphony, these two are regarded as the peak of Dvořák's symphonic
writing and among the finest symphonies of the 19th century.
By far the most popular, however, is Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E
minor (published as No. 5), better known under its subtitle, From the
New World. This was written between January and May 1893, while he was
in New York. At the time of its composition, Dvořák claimed that he used
elements from American music such as Spirituals and Native American music in
this work, but he later denied this. The first movement has a solo flute
passage very reminiscent of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and one of his
students later reported that the second movement depicted, programmatically,
the sobbing of Hiawatha. The second movement was so reminiscent of a negro
spiritual that lyrics were written for it and it became Goin' Home.
Dvořák was interested in indigenous American music, but in an article
published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, he wrote "[In the 9th
symphony] I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities
of the Indian music." It is generally accepted that the work has more in
common with the folk music of Dvořák's native Bohemia than with American