Egalitarian Majesty: Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7

My own sentimental interpretation:

The first movement of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7 overwhelms us with its cosmic panoply of extremes.  It quickly sprints towards a sharp peak, only to reveal a range of ever-higher peaks beyond: the road map for this survey of the universe.  In less than eleven minutes, this movement cycles through a series of several scenes, each one a pairing of a quiet interlude with the climax towards which it grows: a humbling, noble declaration of grandeur.  The rippling waves of those stunning climaxes barely have time to fade, receding into faint little whispers of echoes, quaint reminders of the episode just passed, before they begin defying the law of entropy and sprouting again into the first steps in a chain reaction that will lead to yet another supernova. 

It would be hard to imagine a better summary of the sublime passion experienced throughout a human life. 

The second movement takes those meek, unassuming interludes from the first movement and develops them, amplifying them and giving them their due attention, teaching us that this, too, is a worthy aspect of life, and one worth celebrating.  For a quarter of the entire composition, we are invited to meditate on the lazy and mundane days we take for granted at the time.  This movement is the sound of Candide working in his garden.  But this is no mere peaceful reverie, for even here there are suggestive clues that remind us that, even if we do become comfortable during these easy times, they won’t last forever.  Drama will appear again soon. 

Movement three, however, takes this tour of life in a different direction.  Still containing elements of the previous two movements (for each year of our lives, any given era, is still the sum product of those which came before), this period departs from the serious tone of the first two movements and dwells on sheer exuberance.  Where the symphony had previously showed us some of the light and darkness of life, its drama and its banality, it was always thoroughly serious.  Though this movement never becomes completely lighthearted, there is still a smooth burst of energy to it that refreshes, and that shows us that, even in as ambitious a work as this, not all is meant to be solemn. 

The fourth and final movement combines all that has come before, reviewing them and adding to them, creating a collage that demands to be viewed from afar, as it encompasses not every detail of mortality, but those that make life what it is.  Dvorak’s anthem soars with the heroism of Wagner but rings with Whitman’s reverence for all creation. 

Ultimately, though Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7 is spiritually in tune with those two great artistic contemporaries of the late 19th century, it is best compared to a work of the early 20th: James Joyce’s Ulysses.  This symphony may be Candide at some times and Whitman at others, but from beginning to end, this is the Everyman saga of Leopold Bloom.  As such, it is the Everyman saga of each one of us.  This is our symphony, our life, writ large across the stars.  Listen with rapture.

One comment on “Egalitarian Majesty: Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7

  1. A similar piece is Smetana’s piece “From My Life.” There are 4 movements, the first describes ideals in life and music. The second describes his childhood. The third is emotionally deep; dealing with him finding a balance within his own life. The fourth movement deals with the composer’s onset of deafness. There’s a harmonic E the first violin plays that represents the ringing he hears in his ears. The movement has a bit of a resigned ending, maybe even a tiny flicker of hope.

    It’s a wonderful piece.

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