Dvorák’s nine symphonies span a period of nearly thirty years. The first two were written in 1865, and the last in 1893. Both the numbering of the symphonies and the opus numbers assigned to them have caused some confusion. The first four symphonies were originally omitted from the list, so that the last five were numbered, although not in order of composition, the basis of the more usual numbering today. Opus numbers were also manipulated to some extent, a simple subterfuge to outwit Simrock by allocating earlier opus numbers to new compositions, on which he would otherwise have had an option.
The first surviving symphony by Dvorák, Symphony No.1 in C minor, was written in February and March 1865. It is said that the descriptive title The Bells of Zlonice was chosen by Dvorák himself, although it does not appear on the title-page, and it has been supposed that the title might have been used if the work was the one that the composer had entered for a competition in Germany and of which the score had thereafter been lost. To all intents and purposes the music was lost in the composer’s life-time, bought in a Leipzig second-hand bookshop in 1882 and introduced to the public only long after his death, with performance in Brno in 1936. The title refers to the town in which Dvorák had his early schooling, and the imaginative have detected its bells in the opening of the first movement. The period of its composition coincided with the composer’s unrequited affection for his piano pupil Josefina Cermáková of the Czech Provisional Theatre, whose sister, the contralto Anna Cermáková, he was to marry in 1873.
The symphony is scored for an orchestra that includes a piccolo, cor anglais, four horns, three trombones, trumpets and timpani, as well as the usual pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with strings. The work opens with an impressive introduction, leading to the Allegro principal section of the movement, in which an ominous enough theme leads eventually to a gentler melody that soon moves into further turbulence of feeling. The slow, movement, an A flat major Adagio, is introduced by woodwind chords, accompanied by plucked strings, followed by a finely drawn oboe melody and a strongly felt violin theme. This is followed by a scherzo, relaxing from its opening C minor into an E flat major section, its woodwind dominated passage leading to a passage of more lyrical mood, before the repetition of the opening section. The symphony ends with a brilliant finale in the necessarily triumphant key of C major, a movement with formal touches of counterpoint, reminiscences of what has passed, and more that a hint of the Zlonice bells audible, to those who wish to hear them, in the resonant notes of the French horns.
Dvorák started work on the Legends on 30 December 1880 and completed the set of ten pieces for piano duet on 22nd March in the following year. In November he set to work to orchestrate the pieces, at the request of the publisher Simrock, as he had the first set of Slavonic Dances written three years before. The Legends were dedicated to the critic Eduard Hanslick, and he and Brahms welcomed the pieces with some enthusiasm, as did the public. There was always a significant domestic market for piano duets, explored by Brahms in his Hungarian Dances and by Dvorák first in his Slavonic Dances. The period of composition of the Legends closely followed the completion of the Sixth Symphony and was immediately followed by work on the opera Dimitrij, and may in this sense, be seen as a momentary relaxation from the demands of the larger public forms.
The Legends have no overt programme. Lyrical in mood and relatively short, the ten pieces are evocatively Bohemian in character, imbued with the spirit of Dvorák’s native country. Generally in tripartite form, sometimes extended by repetition, the series opens with a D minor Allegretto, moving forward to a gently lyrical second piece in G major, with a contrasting minor section. The third Legend is a lively Slavonic dance, framing a more tranquil central section in B flat major. The fourth of the set is the longest, opening with a march, moving into more characteristic musical territory, before reverting to thematic material that may seem particularly familiar to English listeners, through a fortuitous resemblance to a well known melody. In the fifth Legend some have detected a connection with religious pictures of the period.