Symphonic Variations on the theme “Já jsem huslař”, Op. 78. (1877)
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

Dvořák’s career as a professional composer began in the mid-1870s. Up to that point, he had worked as a practicing musician for his livelihood, teaching piano, playing viola in orchestras, and serving churches as an organist. His first public success as a composer came in 1873 with his first publications and a well-received performance of a work for male choir; encouraged by the response to his music, Dvořák applied for a stipend from the Austrian government for artists and was awarded 400 gulden (about one year’s salary). He applied several more times, and it was one member of the 1877 grant committee—Johannes Brahms—who was particularly influential in sparking Dvořák’s international career. Brahms’s publisher accepted some of Dvořák’s works and commissioned more, including his first international hit, the “Slavonic Dances” for piano four hands.

The Symphonic Variations was composed in summer 1877, supposedly at the instigation of Ludevit Procházka, the editor of a music journal and friend of Dvořák. Procházka challenged Dvořák to compose a set of variations on the song “Já jsem huslař” (“I am a fiddler”) which Dvořák had arranged for male choir earlier that year. The challenging nature of “Já jsem huslař” as a theme is quickly evident upon hearing the melody—although in simple ternary form (ABA), its main A theme is an asymmetric 7 bars long. The B section is also rhythmically odd at 6 bars, followed by the return of the 7-bar A section. Melodically, the raised fourth scale degree (F-sharp, in the key of C major) creates an off-balance feeling that is not resolved until we arrive at the home pitch (C). Despite the inherent challenges from this tune, Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations is one of his orchestral masterpieces, though it was not initially received with such elan, and was not performed after its premiere for another decade. In 1887, Dvořák revised the piece and the conductor Hans Richter led performances of the Variations to great acclaim in London and Vienna, leading Dvořák’s publisher to publish the work with the misleading opus number 78, despite its composition seven years earlier than opus 77.

Following the presentation of the theme, the work proceeds in twenty-seven short variations and a finale, each increasingly more complex than the previous variation. The basic contour of the theme can be heard clearly in the early variations, especially because of the raised fourth and the odd rhythmic layout. In variation 2 Dvořák invents a counterpoint that propels the music. Variation 6 only alludes to the melody of the theme, whereas Variation 7 hides it in the flutes and in short string outbursts. The vivace variation 10 shows off the virtuosity of the flutes, oboes, and violins, while variation 11 slows the music to a call-and-response between strings and winds. The violins spin out into variation 12, featuring a lyrical violin solo. The muted number 14 strips the melody to a skeleton, while 15 begins with an operatic fanfare, leading to a Beethoven-like number 16. With the calm variation 18 the keys begin to change, leading us further away from the starting point of C major. Variation 19 is a delightful waltz, and Numbers 20 through 23 run seamlessly together, powered by a jig-like rhythm. Variation 25 is in G-flat major, as far away from our home key of C as possible, but the tiptoeing number 27 returns us to C. The rousing finale is the grandest and most elaborate of the variations, presenting the theme in canon, proceeding through several more variations before the the frenzied but impressive ending.

- Harrison Russin, Duke University Music Department