Dvořák conducted his sixth symphony on his first visit to England in 1884, at a concert of the London Philharmonic Society. It was the first Dvořák symphony to be heard outside his own country, and became a great favourite with the English public at the time. The symphony is widely thought to have been influenced by Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which is also in D major. This influence is most noticeable in the first and last movements. Whilst the rich colours and textures of the Czech folk music of Dvořák’s childhood are always present, they burst through to dominate in the third movement, which brought the premiere audience to its feet with a demand for repetition.
The first movement begins in pastoral style with a gently swaying melody. The expressive second theme is first heard in the cellos and horns and then passed to the second violins and violas, oboe and bassoon, varying slightly with each interpretation. The bassoon element is picked up in the rest of the opening and gradually developed in an exuberant central section. Heavy, rising scales in the strings precede the return of the opening theme and build to a climax in the brass section at the end of the movement.
The tenderness of the woodwind introduction of the Adagio has hints of the Adagio from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. This leads to the exquisite main theme, which starts as a duet between wind and strings. Fragments of this theme pervade the whole movement in all varieties of different instrumental combinations. A moment of melodrama towards the end is followed by a pensive flute cadenza, which signals the closing coda. The movement ends in a delicate woodwind passage that echoes the opening.
The third movement is the vivacious Scherzo. Based on the Czech furiant dance, it is filled with lusty Bohemian-style cross-rhythms which are instantly recognisable from Dvořák’s famously popular Slavonic Dances. Two beats versus three across the bar lines of its 3/4 metre gives rise to an infectious, syncopated feel. The more leisurely Trio is a contrasting rustic idyll, featuring the woodwind with piccolo to paint the picture, captivating in its simplicity. Towards the end of the Trio the excitement builds up as the tempo suddenly picks up in a rush and explodes back into a thrilling recapitulation of the Scherzo.
The finale opens with a soft scampering in the strings which gradually expands to fill the whole orchestra. A jaunty dance-like tune, first heard in the clarinet and violas, is subsequently developed into a spirited fugato. The final moments of the symphony combine racing strings with a grandly stretched-out peroration of the original theme, and finally come to a close with a jubilant finish – a brass chorale, making up for the lack of heavy brass (trombones and tuba) in the middle movements.