Dvorak’s missed opportunity.

Usually, studying the score of a great work is like a revelation, even when you know the piece well as a player or listener. However cool you thought the piece was before you opened the score, you can’t help but be amazed and astounded by what you discover when you look at the score, not just for the first time, but every time.

However, I can think of one moment of genuine abject heartbreak in my score study experience. I had always loved Dvorak 7 since I first played it in my youth orchestra. For me, the greatest moment in this symphony, and just about the greatest moment in any symphony, is just before the end when the horns leap up an octave ff and come down chromatically. I always used to look forward to that moment when we played it, and our stellar youth orchestra horn section (including one current Met Orchestra member, who was playing 3rd, so strong was the section back then) always nailed it. When I finally got the score, that was the first thing I looked for.

And to my horror, I discovered it wasn’t there. The great moment was a retouch, dreamed up by some conductor.

Now, normally, at Vftp, this would be the moment when I explain to you why Dvorak was right, and why we should never second-guess a genius.

But I’m not going to. If there is one moment in all music where you just have to say, excuse me, “fuck it- I’m doin’ this,” the end of Dvorak 7 is it. It’s a moment worth going to Hell for. I will face Tony D at the Last Judgement and say “I was sure you would have written this if you thought of it,” and accept my punishments. Anyway, we’re not so much ignoring what he wrote, but adding it what he didn’t think to write, which is usually far worse, but in this case, better.

I did once have a horn player try to refuse to do it- I think she was allergic to sunny days and good food, too.

I’m completely against doing it with trumpet instead, which is sometimes suggested.  It’s not that the line needs to be loud, it needs to be epic, and only the horn will do at that moment.

I intended to write about this when I conducted the piece in November, but never got around to it. Fortunately, I was reminded of it today by this excellent post by Bruce Hembd at Horn Matters (one of the best blogs in the biz). I like very much the idea of all four horns playing it, but schalltrichter auf, bitte!

“Bonus Notes”

This bit of re-orchestration does have some merit; it adds volume and depth to an important line that otherwise may not be heard.

The passage in the red box below is typically doubled by the first horn player, sometimes in tandem with Horn III or even a trumpet. I performed it once where – at the conductor’s request – the entire horn section joined in.

We liked that con mucho gusto but in hindsight, it might have been overkill.

Dvorak7 end2 The Bonus Notes of Dvořáks 7th Symphony

The horns typically play these notes.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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21 comments on “Dvorak’s missed opportunity.”

  1. Elaine Fine

    It’s my favorite moment of that Symphony too (and there are a whole bunch of other glorious ones standing right behind it in line). Of course Dvorak lived in the era of “the composer is always right,” partly because the composer was either conducting, or there in the audience, or he (most always a he) had friends who would have readily reported if there were any deviation from his immaculately-edited score.

    This is a perfect example of interpretive initiative on the part of a conductor, and I kiss the baton of the first conductor to have done it.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine

    I’m with you- especially about the fact that there are more glorious moments than one can county throughout the piece. It’s literally the only retouch I’ve ever done in a Dvorak symphony, too. Anyway, if there’s a greater Romantic symphony, I’d like to know what it is.

    Bruce was theorizing that Szell started the tradition, and that’s not a baton you’d want to kiss, but I think it goes back further than that. I know a guy who probably knows where it comes from- we’ll see if I can find out….

    Thanks for reading!!!!

  3. Erik K

    The first 4 or 5 recordings of this symphony I heard didn’t have the retouch in it. And then I listened to the Dorati on Mercury. My life was never the same. Remind me to send you a copy of the broadcast of the Pittsburgh Symphony doing this last year…if you want to hear a horn section lay waste to something like the walls of Jericho, that’s the way to go.

    As for who did it first…any chance it’s Talich? He’s been “credited” with a couple other notable Dvorak retouches, including an accelerando in the coda of the first movement of the 8th that is simply amazing, if not actually there.

    And at the risk of totally sounding like a broken record…Suitner.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Suitner. Word.

    Don’t know the Dorati- in fact, never heard him conduct D. Have tons of Tchaik with him, and it’s all outstanding. Off to the store….

    Do send the PSO!

  5. Kenneth Woods


    You are absolutely right. He also said that if something was not working with a given orchestra in a given hall, the conductor should dare to change it. That’s something most people have forgotten. There’s a blog post in that, for sure…


  6. Kevin M

    “I’m all with the bonus notes too; don’t be too hasty about rejecting the trumpets though. They too are capable of epic, Pierre Monteux was one that thought they are! Dvorak 7…now that is living

  7. Antoine Leboyer

    On Talich, there exists what I think is a recording of the 7th done in the 30s. There is a unique sense of continuity wholly natural, not imposed, which reflects a close intimacy of the work.

    Now, at this time, weren’t recordings of large scale works were done in small sections. If this is the case, then Talich’s overall grasp is all the more amazing.

    Highly recommended, Antoine

  8. Evan

    “My own heartbreak moment is in the 2nd movement of this piece, as E7 poignantly resolves into the returning F-major theme, in a way I always thought was perfectly and archetypally Dvoraky/Brahmsy. Yum. Come to find out, my favorite moment was the result of the composer cutting out some intervening material. Still recovering from the disappointment

  9. Kenneth Woods

    I know the spot and the story. I was similarly gobsmacked when I found out- it’s one of those miraculous corners and feels both completely surprising and totally perfect. Amazing!

  10. Andrew N

    On a similar note… or set of notes, really… I am a huge advocate for the trumpet ‘fanfares’ in the third movement of La mer. I learned the piece from the old Reiner recording. It’s never felt right to me in any performance I’ve heard with those 8 measures of totally static, dull music that completely derail the momentum of the finale. The trumpets have to be there.

  11. Kenneth Woods

    Andrew- great to hear you. Funny, I was just going through La Mer with a colleague this week and this issue came up. I’ve done it both ways, and I do think the fanfares are right. It’s a classic example of a great composer losing his nerve (the other is Mahler’s change of movement order in the 6th Symphony). Debussy was horrified to hear the same fanfare in Puccini and removed them, but didn’t replace them with anything else. I think there are worse things for a composer than sounding like Puccini

  12. Andrew N

    yes! Thanks for your response. I’m so glad you agree. I think the fanfares are wonderful… I wish they’d be done more often.

  13. Chris T

    “Hah, while the presence of the oboe in that high register can have a trumpet-esque cutting sound, the horns are such a natural choice to make that passage bold. Why overlook that?”

  14. Erik K

    “It’s a classic example of a great composer losing his nerve (the other is Mahler’s change of movement order in the 6th Symphony).”

    Maybe we can add almost anything Bruckner ever wrote to this as well. I guess maybe he didn’t lose nerve, maybe he just lacked it to begin with. For the man who wrote the soundtrack to the end times (sorry Scriabin!), Bruckner sure doubted himself.

    Agreed on Debussy…the music without the fanfares always sounds so bizarre, IMO.

  15. Patrick G

    Total agreement here, nothing else will do except the horns – but who was the conductor who put them in, did Tony D get to hear about it and seeeing as it was written for English players, may they not have done it the first time?

  16. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Patrick- Great to hear from you. Of course, you raise the question of whether it was a horn player or conductor who thought of it. My question is where are the pedants? Is nobody going to argue with me on this? Surely there is one person out there who thinks this is overkill or just morally wrong? Come on- don’t be a coward. Make your case!

  17. Greg A.

    Slightly changing the subject–I’ve always wondered also about the tempo for the final bars. No meter change is marked, but the three times I’ve done it the conductor has always cut the time to half speed (if not slower). I have an LP (supposedly 1958) of Kubelik with Vienna who does no change to the final bars and shoots to the final chord at top speed. Is everyone following a tradition, or is a half-speed change what Dvorak was asking for?

  18. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Greg

    Great to hear from you, as always.

    It’s marked Molto Maestoso right from the moment of the bonus notes, so the question becomes whether in this instance “very majestic” means “very slow?” I have to confess, I do it slower than many! Kubelik’s Berlin Phil recording (one of the great ones ever made) does slow down at the end, too, so maybe he re-thought it. I seem to remember that the last set of parts I used (which were the very old edition where it is still called Symphony no. 2) didn’t have the Molto maestoso marked, although it is in the first edition score.

    Hope that helps!


  19. Pingback: Follow up: On Frankenstein’s lab, German orchestras, and how Dvorak is a different person than Brahms « Everything But The Music

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