Rachmaninoff writes cryptically on the first page of the manuscript, “This main theme occurred to me upon the arrival at the station of the ceremonial train from Pest in 1884.” Czechs were travelling from Hungary to Prague for a performance at the National Theatre, which was followed by a pro-Czech political demonstration.
The immediate issues of the 1880s had long-standing causes; for centuries, the Czech territories had been governed by the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, and the Czech people were frequently treated as inferiors within the empire.
Over a low rumbling from the basses, timpani, and horns, the cellos and violas introduce the theme. A brief pastoral horn solo follows. A beautiful theme for flute and clarinets follows, and as it is passed to the violins, it becomes more intense. The opening theme makes a strong comeback at the movement’s climax. Following a dramatic coda, the movement comes to an end with one more appearance of the opening theme.
A calm, hymn-like chorale serves as the opening to the quiet second movement. A lyrical horn melody appears before taking an abruptly dramatic turn. The primary theme returns in the cellos after a series of powerful, contemplative developments, setting up the violins to lead an emotional passage. The hymn-like chorale from the beginning returns on the oboe over pianissimo, tremolo strings as the movement comes to a close.
The violins begin the third movement with a Czech furiant as the cellos and bassoons simultaneously play a Viennese waltz underneath it. This uneasy dance of two themes sets the tone for the whole work. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for Dvořák’s pursuit of great Czech music employing traditional Austro-German forms.
A furiant is a rapid and fiery Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time, with frequently shifting accents; or, in “art music”, in 3/4 time “with strong accents forming pairs of beats”
The finale opens with an ominous melody full of chromatic inflections that give it a Slavic character. This main melody develops into a number of increasingly frenzied march-like themes until a contrasting, lyrical melody appears.The music hurtles toward a rafter-shaking plagal cadence, the chords traditionally used for the word “Amen,” and ends with a resplendent D major chord, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of this intense musical journey.