Dvorak’s Symphony #8 is one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire. While it has its share of difficulties of balance, ensemble, and style, it is not nearly as difficult as his seventh symphony and can be programmed by many community and school orchestras.
Here is a list of ideas based on my experience with this colorful symphony.
The melody at the beginning must be played with warmth and expression. Note that the beginning of the development (Letter F) is identical, except for the fact that the cello is inexplicably (to me, at least) written in tenor clef. The only real difference is the addition of the timpani at measure 141. Note that measure 7 begins pp. I ask the cellos to play measure 12 on the D string. The conductor can take a little time in measure 17 going into the cadence.
I suggest giving a clear cue to the flutist in measure 18, as well as in measure 145, as the first entrance at measure 18 comes 1 measure after the cadence, and the second entrance at measure 145 comes 2 measures after the cadence. The exchange of the note “d” between the flute and the piccolo needs to be seamless, which is not easily accomplished. This long d is the only involvement of the piccolo for the entire piece. The piccolo player can take a catch breath when the flute reenters after Letter A. Starting at measure 23, I advocate for warm, full value half notes.
I conduct from the beginning in half notes, and go into 4 at Letter A. It’s possible to continue in 2, but for the sake of the people playing moving notes, conducting in 4 is helpful. Do notice that for violins, the crescendo continues all the way to measure 36. In the Artia edition of the score, the trumpets are omitted in measure 36, and need to be added, octave G eighth notes on beat one, and G unison eighth notes, second line, on beat 2.
At Letter B, the tempo can be broadened slightly, and then resumed in the 4th measure after Letter B. At measure 42, perhaps the timpani can change his note to C, which is the pedal note, rather than play G. Measure 47 is a single forte, building to fortissimo in measure 51. It’s possible to add the first violin pickup notes to the seconds as well in measures 51 and 52. In measure 55, playing the third and fourth 16th note in the second beat on separate bows, rather than slurring all the 16th notes, can produce more clarity. I’m careful at Letter C that the brass don’t accent their half notes, but rather play with a beautiful and noble sense of chorale.
Note that throughout this movement, the dotted 8th note, 16th note figures can be played differently from the 8th note, 16th rest, 16th note figures. This pattern begins with the clarinets in their pickup to measure 62. Note that the bassoons probably will need to play a “piano soli”, and the violas an expressive pp. Lingering just a bit at measure 66 creates a nice bit of anticipation.
The passage from measure 67 to Letter D will invariably relax a little bit, so it’s possible to resume tempo at Letter D. I ask the string players playing triplets to play slightly off the string; in this passage, the winds need to be encouraged not to drag, and the string players not to rush.
In measure 85, I suggest following the differences in the dotted 8th note and the 8th note, 16th rest. However, note that in the recap at measure 263, the note lengths are inconsistent. I change the note lengths in the recap to match those in the exposition. This effect can be emphasized in the violins by playing the pickup to measure 84 with 2 up bows, followed by up bow, down bow on beat 4; then in the next measure, clipping the 3rd beat quarter note and then two tenuto upbows on the 4th beat matches the previous pickup. At measure 95, I have the bassoons start louder and expressively, followed by a diminuendo. At measure 101, even though the violins are marked with an accent, I ask them to sustain through the measure. The brass players must play prudently, bringing out only the melodic passages, such as the trombone parts in measure 105 and 107. At measure 111, the brass must play with a warm and noble sound, embracing the inherent chorale style of playing. The ritardando going into Letter F can be played on the G string, with a crescendo into measure 126, and a diminuendo into measure 127.
At measure 207, a suggested bowing for cello/bass would be down, down, down, up down up, with the half note connecting across the bar line. Again, at measures 212 and 213, observe the difference between the 8th note, 16th rest and the dotted 8th note. At measure 217, perhaps a slightly softer dynamic with a big crescendo to the measure 219 recap would be effective.
At measure 224 and measure 229, all down bow for cello/bass would be effective. Note that the English horn solo is that instrument's only appearance in the entire piece. After the preceding tumultuous music, the contrasting calm passages should be substantially slower, picking up the tempo at tempo primo. The comments from the exposition can also apply to the recapitulation.
Note that the dynamic at the coda, measure 289, is fortissimo, compared to the previous forte, which denotes an increase in intensity. I suggest all down bows for the 1/4 note, 1/8 note figures from measure 291 on. At 5 measures after Letter O, the horns and trombones can play more dramatically if they articulate the half notes. At measure 299, an increase in intensity leading to the cadence at measure 301 can be effective. At measure 301, all players playing single notes can start this measure and the following measure softer with a crescendo, which enables the moving voices of the violins, violas, and woodwinds to be heard.
In measures 303, again, observe the difference between the 8th, 16th rest and dotted 8th notes. Note that the woodwinds do not have dotted 1/4 notes at measures 307 to 310; I changed their notes to dotted 1/4 notes to be consistent with measure 304. At measure 311, I have the brass and timpani drop back dynamically, and then crescendo to the cadence at measure 313.
I like to indicate all 4 beats in the first bar, inviting the orchestra to play on the last beat. Rather than playing a diminuendo right away, I prefer sustaining with a singing sound before decreasing the volume. It’s possible to put the pp on the downbeat of measure 8, rather than in measure 7.
At 1 measure before Letter A, having the horns sustain a full 3 beats allows for only a 32nd rest, eliminating a longer than necessary pause. The passages at letter A are suggestive to me of being in a forest, with the sounds of birds, achieved by clipping the 16th notes a bit, answered by the clarinets in the depths of the forest. The flute passage can move a bit, with the tempo for the clarinets somewhat expanded. At measure 20, the horns can be prominent without covering the clarinets. With clarinets leading, and the other instruments supporting, measure 23 should be loud enough so that measure 25 produces a beautiful echo effect. I prefer the grace note at measure 28 played as a 32nd note on the beat.
The moving notes at letter B must be heard clearly, best achieved by having the oboes and horns playing a little less. In the second measure, 2 down bows on beats 3 and 4 are very dramatic. I suggest that the conductor and the string players not move until the following pickups in measures 34 and 37. In the next phrase, sustaining through the downbeat of measure 41 with the pianissimo subito on the second beat is very effective. The end of measure 43 may be expanded a little bit. The downbeat of measure 45 may be shortened a bit so that the triplet in that measure is not connected with the winds and horns.
For the horns at 2 measures before letter C, these 16th notes may be played short or slightly tenuto. In instances such as these, I prefer tenuto, but am aware that many of my colleagues prefer them played short. At letter C, a somewhat daring bowing is to have the violins play the 32nd notes all up bow. The flute and oboe duet at 3 measures after letter C is very effective if the players continue to sustain and sing through the dotted quarter notes. At measure 52, the diminuendo can start on the 3rd and 4th beats, rather than as written; the phrase can be rounded off nicely 1 measure before letter D. At 3 measures after letter D, the grace note can be played as a 32nd note on the beat, or perhaps thought of as an expressive on the beat gesture, typical of Dvorak. The concertmaster can take some time at the last couple of bars of the solo.
At measure 66, a portamento in the violins on beat 4 is very expressive. However, non-divisi may be impractical for the next beat for first violins. However, since the violas are playing the B, it might work for the first violins to omit the B, abandoning the non-divisi for that note only. A portamento at measure 68 from the F to the C for first violins is also a fine expressive gesture.
At letter E, note that the first 2 beats are 64ths, followed by 32nds. The 32nds require a big full bow stroke. At measure 76, the trumpets can start softer than fortissimo, playing a crescendo to measure 77.
For the passage at letter F, the conductor needs to decide whether the crescendo goes past piano, with a subito p on the second beat, or crescendos only to piano. The grace notes in the cello in measure 85 may be played as 64th notes. The clarinets diminuendo before letter G can be very gradual.
At letter G, non-vibrato for all strings makes for a mysterious, ethereal sound, accentuating the dramatic fortissimo in the 5th bar. The first violins should play measures 110 to letter H on the G string. At letter J, note that the trumpets are marked mf, which enables the flutes and oboes to be heard clearly. 3 measures before letter K may be played all down bow for the cellos and basses.
For the violins’ pickup to 3 measures after letter K, I recommend starting down bow toward the tip, with the triplets 3 measures after letter K continuing up bow. Slurring the entire measure 138 on a down bow will help accentuate the beautiful pianissimo in measure 139. A portamento between the G and B flat is also an expressive gesture. I would suggest continuing the crescendo at the second measure of letter L all the way to measure 146.
At letter M, be sure that the flute and clarinet remain very audible, and not covered by the rest of the orchestra. The same would apply for the bassoon in measure 151. First violins can play on the G string starting at the pickup to measure 158. A feeling of crescendo 4 measures after letter N achieves a strong climax at the fortissimo. I would stay in tempo 3 measures from the end, and take just a bit of time in the last 2 measures.
The third movement has a lovely lilt – notice that the repeat of the melody at measure 12 is embellished with a nice lift between beats 1 and 2, and a nice mordent on beat 3. 4 measures before letter B contains both hemiola, superimposed 3/4 time and Fauxbourdon, parallel first inversion chords.
The accompaniment at letter D is a 3/4 hemiola. The violins and violas can play at the tip, and the cellos very lightly off the string. The grace notes in the flute and oboe 6 measures after letter D can be played as 16th notes on the beat in a typical Dvorak gesture. At measure 105, the roles are reversed – the trumpet and timpani play the 3/4 hemiola while the strings take the melody and harmony. A portamento leading to measure 106 is very nice – I’ve found that orchestral portamentos of this nature are best accomplished by doing them legato, necessitating a slur between the 3rd beat of measure 105 and the downbeat of measure of 106. This effect can be done by hooking the first 2 notes of measure 105 on a down bow and slurring the 3rd beat into the downbeat of measure 106. I move the fortissimo to measure 111, which to me is the top of the phrase, and making sure it comes on a down bow. Similar circumstances occur in subsequent phrases. Note that a lovely color for first violin at measure 150 occurs by playing the D on the D string, and potentially also adding a harmonic. The same portamentos and grace notes repeat at measure 151.
At letter G, non-vibrato for the violins and pianissimo for the rest of the strings and timpani will enable the oboe to be easily heard. The ritardando into the Andante will necessitate the conductor going into 3 at some point. Exactly where will depend on the individual conductor. Adding a fermata to the last measure before the dal segno makes for an easier and unforced transition.
At measure 83 the second time around, I’ve found that conducting in 3/4, in other words, conducting the hemiola, helps to establish the tempo of the Coda. Quarter note will, more or less, equal a half note (a whole measure) of the Coda, which is in one. The Coda might be a little faster than the quarter note, but in any case, this makes the transition easier.
Starting the Coda up bow in the first violins enables the third bar to be played with 2 up bows, and with a nice lift. This spirited gesture adds to the character of the passage. Likewise measure 192 in the horns and trumpets is also short. Notice that the Coda is in 3 measure groups except for the phrase at measure 199 and the last 7 measures.
At measure 20, an option is to have just the 4th horn play the low concert D or have the 2nd and 4th horn play instead of the 3rd and 4th horn, as of course 2nd and 4th horn are basically designated the “low” horn players.
Letter A can begin with 2 tenuto up bows for the cellos; by playing measure 33 on a down bow and hooking the last eighth note, that bowing can also occur on the repeat. I suggest continuing the crescendo in measure 32 so that measure 33 becomes the arrival point of the phrase.
Letter B can be a slightly faster tempo, with down bows for the cellos and basses as well as the upper strings.
The Un poco piu’ mosso at letter C is exciting and exhilarating. At 5 measures after letter C, the horns can play the 16th notes on the first beat as well, doubling the bassoons for the entire measure. The same occurs at 5 measures after letter E. In the third and fourth measures after letter C, the timpani can play C instead of D to match the bass note. The same adjustment can be made in the next phrase and after letter E.
Letter D may be played with fewer string players to enable the flute to be heard clearly. Three stands of first violins, 3 stands of second violins, and 2 stands of violas may be utilized here, as well as starting from the pickup to measure 135, with 2 stands of cellos for that passage. All strings play at the pickup to letter E, and at letter G in the passage later on. At 5 measures after letter F, there are two choices - a down bow on the downbeat and on the 2nd beat, or a down bow on the pickup to that measure with an up bow on the downbeat connecting with the second beat.
At measure 121, I have the trumpets play forte diminuendo rather than forte piano diminuendo.
At measure 123, the violas can be somewhat prominent, and very rhythmical, observing the accents. At measure 156, the second violins and violas may be asked to sustain in forte rather than play a diminuendo. Adding 3rd and 4th horns to the bassoon parts at measure 158 does a lot to strengthen the lower octave. Trumpets may be asked to play a single forte, and first violins a full and vibrant quarter note. Clarinets may be better used to double oboes at letter H to enable the canon to be more clearly heard. At letter J, a few adjustments may be helpful – violins and violas play forte piano for 2 measures, and then p crescendo. Trumpet 1 doubles the oboes for the half note and dotted quarter note. Clarinets double oboes starting with the pickup to the third measure after letter J for 2 measures. Horns play less than a full forte in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th measures after letter J. Trumpet 1 doubles the oboes and second violins for 2 measures at 5 measures after letter K. Timpani “lays low” at measure 209, then crescendos with the trumpets 2 measures before letter L.
Letter L is the thrilling climax to the development, which ushers in the recapitulation as well. Otto Werner Mueller offered this wonderful suggestion which I did last time I conducted the piece. At letter L, replace the horns with a third trumpet. It’s definitely a lot of sitting around for that player, but I supplied several other passages that the third trumpet could easily play along with the other trumpets. The result of the 3 trumpets playing this passage is stunning, and if practical, is an exciting idea.
At letter M, many of my colleagues choose to slow down, but I prefer to continue in tempo, allowing the augmentation to supply a natural slowing down.
Note that the passages in the recapitulation starting at letter N are marked piano or pianissimo, providing a nostalgic memory of the first time this music was heard. The first violins at letter Q can play this passage on the D string, shifting to the G string on the E flat in the 6th measure. At measure 323, the tempo primo, playing on the D and A strings allow for a warm simplicity.
At letter R, the same suggestions apply as earlier. Letter S and 5 measures after letter S demonstrate 2 excellent illustrations of inverted counterpoint, where the top and bottom voices exchange roles. Four measures from the end, the third trumpet can play the first and second horn part, but I would not eliminate them. The third and fourth horns, trombones, and timpani can hold back a bit, and crescendo to the last measure.
I hope that these suggestions prove to be helpful, serving only to support the character and emotion of this brilliant score.