What project is this? When I set out to do some writing for orchestra and decided to take up the form and genre of the symphony, I realized that while I knew some symphonies pretty well, such as ones by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, there were a lot of others that I simply did not know very well, such as those by Brahms, Bruckner and Schumann. So I set out to listen, at least once, to all the significant symphonies. I think I put up the list before, but it includes all those by the ones I just mentioned plus Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schubert and others. In the process I added Allan Pettersson, whom I had never heard of before. I think I will get around to Carl Nielsen as well.
But I just finished, over the weekend, listening to the symphonies, all nine of them, by Antonín Dvořák and started on the ones by Brahms. Incidentally, I got an excellent Decca box of the symphonies, concertos, Hungarian Dances, Serenades and Variations on a Theme of Haydn all conducted by Haitink with the Concertgebouw. I have loved the Haydn Variations since I had a recording of them on two pianos played by the Kontarsky brothers. While I have often been critical of Brahms' chamber music in the past, I think that I am going to come away from this project with a high opinion of his orchestral music.
Dvořák is an entirely different kettle of fish, though. He was one of the very first composers, along with Debussy, that I really fell in love with when I was discovering classical music way back when. The New World Symphony just bowled me over. But now, listening to him today, I hear him a bit differently. The first four symphonies are quite bad, I think. The constant tympani rolls, barking brass and over-reliance on dotted rhythms to create a kind of artificial excitement gave me a headache. It is interesting to hear the not-good symphonies from the 19th century because they give us a kind of read on audience taste. They were delighted with loud, blaring sounds in the concert hall because all this was rather a new experience for the middle-class audience that was coming to classical music for the first time. Previous to the 19th century, classical music was, except in church, mostly listened to just by the aristocracy.
After the first four symphonies, things get a bit better as Dvořák learns how to create charming textures with the woodwinds and finds a lyrical mode. But I can't say that there are any really great symphonies until we get to the last one, the New World Symphony. This is a fine piece, with some really memorable melodies. But my overall impression of Dvořák is that, even after he mastered writing for the orchestra, he was still rather a lightweight. There are simply no profound movements here, just a lot of charming music with a likable surface.
Let's listen to an example. Here is the Symphony No. 8 by Dvořák: