Notes about notes….

Intermezzo from the score questioning series- Some (late night) thoughts to ponder in Dvorak 8, 1st mvt…. 

What is the first note of the piece (in the melody)? Middle “D”  What is the last note of the cello melody that spans the first 16 bars (yes, the cellos are doubled  by 2 clarinets, one bassoon and two horns, but let’s face it, this is a cello melody)? Same middle “D”! What happens next? Violins enter with a 3 voice chord G-B-D. Top note D is one octave above cello D. 

What happens next? Flute plays the same three notes, but melodically, G-B-D, but another octave higher. What happens next? Pic takes over the high D and the violins and violas play a little two-note homophonic gesture which ends with both the top note in the 1sts and the bottom note in the violas on d, then cellos and bass answer with same. Finally, tuba and timps join the D pedal of the flute. 

Why is the whole opening of the symphony so intently focused on this note, and why does Dvorak so carefully build the scope of the orchestra from the very middle of the keyboard out slowly octave by octave? Notice when the opening tune comes back for the last time, the entire passage is played over a D pedal. What does it mean? (“It’s the dominant” is not an answer, because that doesn’t mean anything). Do you get the feeling he really wants us to know that the D is the main note of this theme, maybe of the whole movement? Other cool things to notice…. 

The three notes G-B-D are the main melodic cell of the whole symphony and tie the first and last movements together in particular (the main themes of the first and last movements both start with the notes G-B-D). You hear it first as the violin chord, then as the flute melody. Does it mean anything that the harmonic structure of the exposition is: G minor —G major—- B minor— B Major—B minor— D7 (yes, I know that’s not a key, but it’s a very important arrival)…. G-B-D? 

Is this on purpose? I think it would be a pretty amazing coincidence if it wasn’t. (Remember, in a “normal” symphony, you’d skip the B section and go straight to D major) 

Finally…. Look at the amazing restraint and control Dvorak uses in the opening cello tune. 

This simple, folksy, soulful, free-sounding melody is an incredibly disciplined piece of composition. The tune starts on D (but you know that now) then leaps immediately up to G, the tonic note of the symphony and the highest pitch of the whole theme. The first phrase winds its way down and ends on B-flat, which is the lowest note of the whole theme and the third of the tonic (minor) chord. The second phrase starts again on the same B-flat and works up to an F, one step below the G, before ending on E flat. The high point of the last phrase is that same E flat (the first note of the phrase), again a step down from the highest note of the previous phrase. Finally, the whole theme ends on the notes B-flat, C then, finally. the same D. 

The melody perfectly outlines a G minor chord in first inversion. It uses every note in the G (natural) minor scale between the lowest note (B-flat) and the highest note (G) of the chord, but NO OTHER notes. It starts on D, leaps up to G then works down in stepwise motion (G-F-E-flat-D) over 14 measures to the same D, and ends by working up stepwise B-C-D. It’s all about D, baby…  Why does he avoid A?Interestingly, there is lots of chromaticism in the opening, but none of it is in the melody- it all occurs in the accompaniment. Diatonic melody, chromatic accompaniment. Yeah….

We think of Dvorak as an intuitive, rather naïve melodist, but when you take just this one phrase apart in detail, you can see how much depth of thought went into this music. Finally- Why did Dvorak use the 2nd bassoon as a third trombone in the opening, when there was a third trombone available to him? Just asking. We rehearsed just that trio tonight, and it’s a cooler sound than just a trombone choir, but also more awkward and tricky. That odd timbre seems to make the colors move and shift in intersting and unpredictable ways.

Questions, questions….. c. 2006 Kenneth Woods 



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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Notes about notes….”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » Dvorak 8- Challenges for principal trumpet

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