Czech the numbers

Nicola Benedetti
Nicola Benedetti
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THOSE with long memories may recall that Dvorák’s Symphony No 7 used to be known as No 2, at a time when No 9, ‘From the New World’, was known as No 5 – and later, briefly as No 8!

The Seventh forms part of this Friday’s Hallé concert in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall with Nicola Benedetti joining the orchestra to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

It is hard to believe that Benedetti is still only 25 as she seems to have been around for so long, having been known for a good four years before winning the 2004 BBC Young Musician competition. Friday will be her fourth visit to the city – twice to the Bradfield Festival – since then.

The Scottish violinist appears to have been keeping a low profile of late, a concert with Andrea Bocelli in New York’s Central Park last September in front of 70,000 people seemingly being the only one of any high-profile significance.

Before that, we probably need to go back to December 2010 when she played the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the first time at the 75th anniversary concert of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Her conductor at the City Hall is Rory MacDonald, another talented young Scot, and he is also no stranger to Sheffield directing the Hallé, including in works by Dvorák.

The Czech composer’s Seventh Symphony, along with his Eighth, are regularly held up by many as finer works than his Ninth – the ‘New World’.

Let’s say they have probably grown weary of hearing the latter, which is not to cast aspersions on the other two. All three are Dvorák’s symphonic masterpieces and are very different in outlook.

The Seventh, penned in response to an invitation from the London Philharmonic Society to write a new symphony, is something of an enigma among the composer’s nine symphonies.

He wrote in a letter at the time: “I am so happy and joyful in the course of this work, just as I have always been and, God willing, will always be.”

The finished work, however, bore no resemblance to the apparent optimism!

Heroic ‘battles’ are fought in the outer movements and passion, sombreness, restlessness, even a dash of Tchaikovskian pathos can be found, in greater doses than in any other Dvorák symphony.

Patriotism suggests itself as the most likely cause of the ‘Road to Damascus’ transformation – “God grant that this Czech music will move the world!” he wrote after sketching the first movement in December 1884.

At a time, the Czech nation was struggling against oppression as underdog in the Hapsburg Empire.

The Seventh was the fourth symphony by Dvorák to be premiered, in London in April 1884, and was published as No 2 – No 6 was published as No 1; No 5 (as No 3); No 8 (as No 4); and No 9 (as No 5).

He actually referred to the Seventh as his No 6 – but let’s not confuse things any further and it does get very confusing!

In a nutshell, following the composer’s death in 1904, evidence emerged in 1912 that he had written four earlier symphonies. Three were found fairly quickly and eventually published, some sources giving them numbers, others not, and the fourth, the first one he wrote, surfaced sometime later.

It was published in 1961, the year after Jarmil Burghauser decided to sort the numbering mess out and published a chronological Dvorák biography with a thematic catalogue.