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Inside the Music: Postcards Home

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records
This video was commissioned and created before the sad passing of conductor Jiri Behlohlavek and the title cards were correct at the time of production. 

The mighty Czech Philharmonic return to the Hall with a double helping of Dvořák

Dvořák and Shostakovich both had an intense love of their homeland, each expressing it in very different ways, from frustrated anger to fond affection. And the Czech Philharmonic will be expressing their own love of their much-missed conductor, Jiri Behlohlavek, who sadly died at the end of May 2017.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on the significance of the cello

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on Shostakovich

Five moments to listen out for

Dvořák Symphonic Variation 18
Dvořák’s lively Symphonic Variations on the Czech song ‘I am a fiddler’ stay resolutely in C major until Variation 18 (each one is quite short – don’t worry!) when Dvořák changes gear into D major – the effect is magical, like the sun appearing from behind light cloud.

Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, opening
The opening of the concerto features a motif based on the composer’s initials DSCH (in Western notation D, E flat, C, B). The motif comes and goes throughout the concerto in various forms.

Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, cadenza
The concerto’s cadenza stands alone as the third movement in its own right – a seven-minute tour de force that tests the technique and stamina of the soloist. It moves from anguished introspection to fiery indignation.

Dvořák Symphony Number 9, second movement
The highlight of Dvořák’s New World Symphony has to be the keening cor anglais solo at the start of the second movement – a beautifully crafted melody that manages to be both mournful and uplifting at once.

Dvořák Symphony Number 9, ending
The extended ending of the New World Symphony is dramatic and full of passion – you can sense the final bars almost three minutes before the final chord, but Dvořák draws it out in the most engaging, brilliantly-paced fashion.

Shostakovich’s break into artistic freedom and Dvořák’s American influence

Shostakovich spent much of his life looking over his shoulder – as a Russian citizen, he was subject to close scrutiny, his symphonies and operas in particular pored over by the authorities for any infringements of strict Soviet artistic policy. In post-World War Two Russia, the ‘wrong’ sort of music could literally be fatal. Shostakovich had to work hard to appease his overlords and still write the music that felt true to him. Symphonies that appeared to celebrate Soviet Russia were, in truth, biting criticisms of Communism cruelties. So it was, understandably, something of a relief when Stalin died in 1953 – Shostakovich felt the eyes of the state lifting from him, and he enjoyed, for the first time in his life, a modicum of artistic freedom. His close friendships in the final 20 years of his life, with composer Benjamin Britten, violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, oiled the wheels of his creativity, helping the composer produce some of the greatest music of his life. Rostropovich was one of Shostakovich’s most important muses – in fact, the cellist had always hoped his great friend would dedicate something to him. And so Rostropovich was the dedicatee of not one, but two fine cello concertos.

The First Concerto, the most performed and accessible of the two, is an angry, seething work – Shostakovich, now free of oppression, felt able to express his utter disdain for Communism. And he does so with music that boils and bubbles with rage, the four notes corresponding to the four letters of his initials (D, E flat, C, B) recurring again and again, and musical quotes from 19th-century composer Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death emphasising his defiance. There is, however, plenty of room for mischief – in the swirling cello part, it’s possible you can hear Shostakovich and Rostropovich a little worse for wear after their legendary drinking sessions together!

In 1891, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was the toast of Europe – so much so, that the Americans fancied a slice of his success. And in the same year, he was invited to head up the National Conservatory of Music in New York, where he lived for just under three years. It was there he heard one of his students Harry T Burleigh sing the American spirituals that would inspire him to write his Ninth Symphony.

It’s a common misconception that those spirituals made their way, verbatim, into the symphony. But what we hear throughout the piece, in fact, are Dvořák’s own versions of them – ‘It was my intention’, he wrote in 1900, ‘only to write in the spirit of these national American melodies’, although if you listen closely the first movement’s second theme, you can just about make out the tune to ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’…

Whether the New World Symphony is really American or not is open to debate. This is a work firmly in the traditional mould of the 19th century, following on from Brahms and Schumann. But he infuses his masterpiece with the flavours of American melodies, tunes that resonate with all of us because they possess musical elements of European folk traditions: English, Scottish, Czech… So it could be said that Dvořák was writing a paean to his home country, rather than a celebration of a new land.

Dvořák: 10 things you didn’t know

Find out why his 9th Symphony became the best thing to advertise sliced bread, and how the Czech composer could’ve been serving up joints of meat instead of symphonies. Here’s a few things you might not know about the man who gave us Slavonic Dances and the New World Symphony, including some rather interesting hobbies…

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