Antonín Dvořák had no hang-ups about writing symphonies. Perhaps because he was Czech, at the fringe of the German-Austrian mainstream, he wasn’t intimidated by Beethoven, bent on proving himself a worthy heir to a great legacy. He could just be himself.
Still, it wasn’t easy to know exactly what that meant, and one reason his early symphonies aren’t often played is that they don’t sound very much like Dvořák. Neither his First Symphony or Second were performed when first written. For a while he was inspired by the radical music of Richard Wagner, a direction he explored in his Third Symphony and Fourth, which were both performed in Prague, conducted by Bedřich Smetana. Still, they didn’t really catch on, and he continued to work primarily as a violist, church organist, and piano teacher.
Beginning in 1874, Dvořák began applying for an Austrian State Stipendium for artists in order to support his composing. He received his first award in February 1875, which allowed him to dive into a new symphony—his Fifth—which he completed in just six weeks that summer. Here he came into his own, embracing leaner, almost neo-classical textures, and Slavic folk elements he had grown up with. He added the new symphony to his Stipendium portfolio for the following year, where it was reviewed by panelist Johannes Brahms, who took an interest in Dvořák’s career. “For several years I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak),” Brahms later wrote in a recommendation to his publisher. How funny that Dvořák had already written five symphonies before his wizened mentor had completed even one.
Nonetheless, Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony wasn’t premiered until 1879—after his popularity exploded with the Slavonic Dances—and it wasn’t performed abroad until 1888 in London. Around that time he made some revisions and dedicated it to the conductor Hans von Bülow, who responded: “A dedication from you—next to Brahms the most divinely gifted composer of the present time—is a higher decoration than any Grand Cross from the hands of any prince.”
His international reputation established, Dvořák’s next symphony was written for the Vienna Philharmonic and published as “Symphony No. 1,” and the one after that was titled “No. 2,” basically de-canonizing the first five. However their success led Dvořák to revisit his back catalogue, and in 1888 he published the Fifth as “No. 3.” For a long time the numbering of his symphonies was all a mess, but eventually musicologists restored the early ones and put everything in chronological order.
The Fifth Symphony’s first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is fresh and breezy, opening with clarinets that will keep peeking up as a folksy element throughout the piece. After decorating around the edges, he builds up with horn calls to the bold main theme. Little rhythmic punctuations within and below the orchestra (often in pizzicato) register as a Dvořák hallmark.
The slow movement introduces a dignified melody, first heard in the cellos, and then sticks to it relentlessly. Every twist turns back to the same place. A lighter middle section hints at something different, but the theme sneaks back in and soon takes over again. Even the introduction to the next movement can’t shake the slow movement’s theme (an unusual compositional bridge). Finally the Scherzo tune kicks it away—heralded with touches of triangle.
Uncommon for a major-key symphony, the finale is set largely in minor. And its main idea—guess what—seems to be a dramatic transformation of the sticky slow-movement theme, now in boldface. After a few minutes, Dvořák soothes it with a balletic second theme, and then throws all his ideas into continual contrast, extending them to the breaking point, conjuring a latter-day Sturm und Drang.