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.
Third Symphony was written in 1872 and probably scored the following year. It was first performed at a Philharmonic concert in Prague in 1874, the first of the symphonies that the composer had heard played. The symphony is scored for an orchestra that includes piccolo and cor anglais, in addition to pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, four horns, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings. A harp is used in the slow movement and a tuba added in the finale. The work is in only three movements and shows the continuing influence of Wagner in its instrumental writing.
The choice of the key of E flat has led some to seek comparisons with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, in the same key. There is a broad parallel in the suggestions of a funeral march in the C sharp minor second movement, interrupted by a D flat major section with its harp accompaniment and busy accompanying figuration for divided violas and cellos. The finale, announced by the timpani, might suggest in mood, if not in structure, the work of Beethoven, dominated by the jaunty rhythm of its principal theme, with suggestions of Wagner at moments of dramatic climax.
Dvorák wrote his Sixth Symphony for the conductor Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1880, but the prejudices of certain members of the orchestra towards the Czechs and their unwillingness to allow the inclusion of a new work by a new Czech composer so soon after the successful performance in 1879 of the third Slavonic Rhapsody allowed Adolf Cech, once the composer’s colleague in the St. Cecilia Orchestra during student days, to give the first performance in Prague early in 1881. The following year August Manns conducted the symphony at a Crystal Palace concert in London, and Richter added a further London performance of the work he had commissioned three weeks later. The first Vienna performance was given in 1883 by Wilhelm Gericke for the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The symphony is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, four horns, a pair of trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani and strings.
Attention has been drawn to similarities between the D major Symphony and the symphony by Brahms in the same key, although Dvorak’s work bears the indelible stamp of his own genius at its height and may be heard as a tribute to the man who had earlier given him timely help in his career. The symphony opens with repeated accompanying chords played by horns and divided violas, above which the principal theme gradually appears. There is a superb slow movement in the key of B flat, followed by a scherzo bearing the subtitle furiant, a Czech peasant dance, with a contrasting trio, pierced by the piccolo in pastoral mood. The strings open the finale with a long drawn Brahmsian theme, joined by the wind and swelling soon to triumphant dimensions in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.