ANTONIN DVOŘAK composed Symphony No. 8 and orchestrated it in less than three months between August and November 1889, on the occasion of his forthcoming admission to the Prague Bohemian Academy of Science, Literature and Arts. The work was dedicated “To the Bohemian Academy of Emperor Franz Joseph for the Encouragement of Arts and Literature, in thanks for my election “. Dvořák conducted the premiere in Prague on 2 February 1890; in the same year he visited Russia invited by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and conducted his own works in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The following year, 1891, he was awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge University. In 1892 he went to the United States for a three-year period that inspired his “American” opuses – Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, the American String Quartet, Humoresque, Stabat Mater and Te Deum. It was in this context and between these events that his Symphony No8, originally published as No. 4, was born. Dvořák had the London firm of Vincent Novello publish the symphony in 1890, a fact that earned it the sobriquet ‘English’ symphony. Previously, Dvořák had stated himself as a “proud Bohemian”, refusing the offer for publication from Fritz Simrock, who wanted to publish the movement titles and the composer’s name in German.
The Eighth Symphony has been described as a “bucolic euphoria”, the sheer joy of being alive in a world of natural wonders, regardless of episodic dramatic outbursts. According to Otakar Schurek, Dvořák’s biographer, the composer had ‘a garden of his own’ in southern Bohemia, a place he loved ‘like divine art itself’, as well as the fields and forests through which he wandered… They were like his ‘refuge, bringing him not only peace and fresh strength of mind, but also happy inspiration for new creative work.‘ In communion with nature, in the harmony of its voices and the throbbing rhythms of its life, in the beauty of its changing moods and aspects, his thoughts came more freely… Here he absorbed poetic impressions and moods, here he rejoiced in life and grieved at its inevitable decay, here he indulged in philosophical meditations on the nature and meaning of the interrelationship between nature and life.”
The symphony does express the serenity and enjoyment of communing with all that is native, cheerfulness and optimism. In this folksong breeze from Bohemian nature, a history of several centuries, the time of German influence in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, is matured. Under strong German leadership and the official German language, the tribal spiritual traditions and the Czech (Bohemian) language were that mark of identity that the artists of the 19th century considered it their duty to restore. Dvořák also responded to the enthusiasm for reviving Bohemian folk music.
The symphony was premiered on February 2nd ,1890 in Prague, conducted by the composer himself. Performances followed in Frankfurt and Cambridge on the eve of his being awarded an honorary doctorate. Hans Richter, who conducted the work in Vienna and London, wrote to the composer: “You would have enjoyed this performance very much. We all felt that it is a great work, therefore we all were enthusiastic. […] The applause was warm and cordial. “