Antonin Dvořák composed his Sixth Symphony explicitly for the Vienna Philharmonic and its chief conductor Hans Richter in a matter of months. After a number of postponements, the work finally premiered with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on March 25, 1881, in Prague. The famed Dvořák biographer Otakar Sourek poignantly heard “the humor and pride, the optimism and passion of the Czech people come to life, and in it breathes the sweet fragrance and unspoiled beauty of Czech woods and meadows.” Elements of Slavonic folklore, inspired by his study of folk collections clearly permeated his musical language, yet the Sixth Symphony unabashedly takes Johannes Brahms as his musical model. Brahms, as is well known, was actively supportive of the younger composer. However, they are musically and aesthetically linked, as both composers inhabit similar sound worlds, blending Romantic impulse within Classical forms.
When Dvořák first won the Austrian State Prize for young, talented writers, artists, and musicians, he was judged by Johann Herbeck, conductor of the Court Opera in Vienna, and the critic Eduard Hanslick. Herbeck would eventually resign from the commission, and Brahms was appointed to succeed him. Since Dvořák continued winning the state stipend for another three years in succession, Brahms was able to observe his progress as a composer, and he persuaded his publisher to publish some of Dvořák’s works. What has been largely overlooked in this context is that Eduard Hanslick was instrumental in furthering Dvořák’s career. Of course, Hanslick had ulterior motives, as he used the composer to lambast the proponents of program music. “I cannot think of setting Dvořák,” he writes, “on the same level as Richard Strauss. Dvořák is a genuine musician, who has proved a hundred times that he requires no program and no epigraph in order to delight us with pure, independent music. He arouses in us thoughts and feelings, showers of joy and sadness, without the need of the swindle of false erudition.”