Symphony No. 1 – “The voice of the forest”

In 1883 Zdeněk Fibich finished his Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 17. By this time he had already written a number of orchestral works (first and foremost all of his symphonic poems, except V podvečer - At Twilight, Op. 39). He was also working on his opera The Bride of Messina. The music of the First Symphony is redolent of the atmosphere of Fibich’s childhood when as a small boy he used to spend time at gamekeepers’ cottages at Všebořice, Libáň and Žáky amidst the deep forests.

Really the First Symphony?

The Symphony in F, Op. 17 was, however, not the composer’s first attempt at writing a work of this type. We know of two attempts at composing a symphony in his youth.The latest thematic catalogue by Vladimír Hudec brings out the fact that the F Major Symphony – though listed as No. 1 – had its forerunners. There were two: a Symphony in E flat major (without an opus number) and another one in G minor. The E flat Symphony is listed in the Moser catalogue, as well as the catalogue by C. L. Richter (a pseudonym of Anežka Schulzová). According to Moser, Fibich composed it in the spring of 1865 and it was first heard at a Slavoj Society concert at the Měšťanská beseda (Civic Hall) in Chrudim on 12th April 1865. Interestingly enough, two movements were allegedly scored by the notable composer and moving spirit of Chrudim’s musical life, Alois Hnilička. The next symphony, in G minor, written a year later, had its première once again in Chrudim on 6th October 1867. This performance took place at the theatre in Chrudim and was conducted by the composer. The MSS of both the symphonies are missing.

Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 17 – composition and première

The F Major Symphony, Op. 17 was finished on 10th April 1883, but Fibich had begun composing it probably as early as 1877. This is borne out by the date of the completion of the first movement – 10. 2. 1877 in the score. The other movements are not dated. Having been able to study the ‘hand’ in which the MS is written, I agree with previous researchers who think that the movements were composed in proximity to the opening movement. However, the strikingly different ‘hand’ and music paper of the fourth movement confirm the hypothesis that Fibich adopted it from his earlier symphony. Leaving aside the contention about the date of the last movement (Anežka Schulzová and then Josef Bartoš give 1868, while Otakar Zich argues against it), the finale contains a reminiscence of the opening movement, making it possible to surmise that Fibich might not have taken over the movement as a whole but used the earlier thematic material to mould it into the new fourth movement.


Symphony No. 1 had two premières, in fact. To begin with, only the first two movements were performed at a Czech Journalists Association concert on 16th May 1879. The whole symphony was first performed at a Grand Jubilee Concert of the Umělecká beseda (Arts Society) on 3rd May 1883, conducted by Adolf Čech.

Fibich’s forest world

Although there is no programme attached to the First Symphony, it is difficult with a composer like Fibich to suppose that he did not have an actual picture or atmosphere in mind while composing it. This is attested to by the reaction of Fibich experts, such as Zdeněk Nejedlý. He speaks about the forest mood and the neo-romantic spirit of the symphony. The vision of a forest and woods generally were in any case the focus of not just romantic writers and poets at the time, but clearly of composers also, and Fibich was in that sense a true romantic. A very colourful description of how his First Symphony was received came from Václav J. Novotný who wrote in the magazine Dalibor (Vol.1, p.177, dated 20. 5. 1879) that “Fibich was in his work exalted by many visions and phenomena of the romantic spirit, shady groves and oak woods with will-o’-the-wisps and wood-nymphs, ancient castles, hunting parties, merrymaking and feasting,…the splendour of knightly jousting, of games and diversions, and other images of the romantic Middle Ages were all a spur to his creativity…”

The Symphony has four movements

1. Allegro moderato

2. Scherzo - Allegro assai

3. Adagio non troppo (alla romanza)

4. Allegro noc fuoco e vivace

1stmovement - Allegro moderato

Right from the beginning the first bars radiate an atmosphere of extraordinary calm – a feeling experienced by every observer capable of connecting with nature. The opening fp in the horns and violas is already a kind of ray of light which is rousing nature – the woods – from the dark. Not fairy-tale woods, but rather a romantic, poetic forest with – to paraphrase Václav J. Novotný – the green boughs of ancient oaks and beeches trembling in the morning mist. We hear it happening already in the third bar. Suddenly the flutter of a triplet figure, which will remain a key building and impelling element of the whole first movement, suggests a sort of nature’s whisper and rustle.

A detailed analysis of the exposition and the formal scheme of the whole symphony follows.

A key to the understanding of the first movement is its tempo indication Allegro moderato. I would underline the modifier moderato. Although the first movement pays respect to the basic attributes of sonata form, it also contains some rondo features. Fibich is on the whole working with relatively short motives (often 3 to 4 bars) which can be classed as main and episodical. The episodical ones usually present new musical material and appear often just once, differ in their character and act as contrast to the main motives. The main motives (themes) share the motivic material which, however, goes through a number of alterations – a method similar to Wagner’s leitmotivs. Together the motives assemble into motivic areas. In the exposition these are the main, subsidiary and concluding areas. From the formal point of view they keep to the basic outline of sonata form in the first movement. The exposition consists of bars 1 - 119, the development of bars 120 - 209 and the recapitulation 210 – 366. In our detailed analysis we shall concentrate on the exposition. That can be divided into three sections: main (bars 1 – 60), subsidiary (61 – 90) and concluding section (91 – 119). The four-bar main motive (Aa) appears in bar 5 of the opening section and is played twice. The key indicator for understanding its character is the annotation dolce and piano. The triplet figure mentioned earlier is part of the main theme. In bar 13 the strings take the lead, doubled by flutes and clarinets. Their role is of course not just to repeat the theme but to use its material to effect a change in the calm flow of the music thus far. The four-bar gradation (bars 13 – 16) brings us to the first culmination – the majestic four-bar motive (Ab – bars 17 – 20) – and the subsequent three-bar transition which calms the flow of the music again and, using the semiquaver “mumur” of the strings, ushers in a reappearance of the main motive (Aa from bar 24 on), this time in the horns. The triplet movement which is part of the main motive is played by the violas and cellos, while a counter-melody is played by the first violins and a figuration by the second violins with a rhythmic complement in the timpani. In bars 36 – 39 another motive (Ac) makes its appearance. It is built on an alternation between strings and woodwinds, its character introducing a new quality of ardent expression. This feature – the alternation of two elements, say of the masculine and feminine principle, of question and answer – can later on be found also in the main theme of the Second Symphony. The theme is developed in bars 40 – 44 in a way similar to bars 13 – 16. Fibich is using the earlier material, but in an evolutionary way, resulting in gradation that prepares the entry of new material. Bar 45 sees the appearance of a merry motive (Ad) whose character can be underscored in performance by accentuating the second beat. Bars 49 – 52 present a motive (Ae) of very firm character, similar to bars 21-23. This feature needs to be supported by thoroughly firm playing of the quavers (with tenuto marks above the notes) in the woodwind and brass parts. The semiquavers in the strings, too, are rather broad and solid. The bars 53 – 56 and 57 – 60 can be regarded as a transition, although in bar 58 Fibich is already anticipating the coming subsidiary theme in the woodwinds. The subsidiary theme section takes up bars 61 – 90 and is marked Quasi meno mosso in the score (but in the MS we find it marked Unmerklich zurückhalten - imperceptibly held back). The MS also shows some retouching in the orchestration. For instance the harp part is added to the score in pencil and, therefore, possibly later. The subsidiary theme (Ba) makes its entry in bars 61 – 68 at a low level of loudness in strings, doubled by clarinets and bassoons, later on by horns. In bars 69 – 76 (Ba1) it is repeated, but louder (mf). In bar 76 in the score we find the mark poco accelerando (in the MS etwas drängend – pressing a little). Bars 77 and 78 can be regarded as a thematic bridge which leads to a new thematic section (Bb), bars 79 – 82. While the earlier theme charms us by the simplicity of its melody and its calmness, the subsequent theme is more passionate and urgent, as if clearing the way for the next chapter in the story of the First Symphony. This is attested to by the mark breiter (broader) in the MS. An important element in those four bars is the restless rhythm in the violas and cellos while the first violins play the broad span of the melody. In the next four bars (Bb1, 83 – 86) the restless pulse is missing and the broad melody takes over. Bars 87 – 90 form a bridge that leads into the final section, bars 91 – 119, which introduces and entirely new motive (Ca) in bars 91 – 94 but goes on to work mostly with the main theme (Aa). By the melding of new motives with the main theme (Aa), the final section present us with the elements of a rondo. The heroic, manly and resolute character of the new motive (Ca) betrays the source of Fibich’s inspiration as Schumann and Wagner. Similarly, the character of the motive (Cb) in bars 102 – 106. The alternation of development with passages of reminiscence, however, does not preclude the continuation of the triplet movement from bar 95 on, whether it reminds of the sound of the forest in the violas (bar 95), enjoys the scherzo character in the woodwinds (bar 98) or assumes the firm, masculine character in the brass instruments (bar 107). The development section then begins in bar 102.

Although Fibich begins his symphony in a meditative frame of mind, he also introduces a lyrical subsidiary theme and a firm, resolute one in the conclusion. A part of the development section breaks the surface from perhaps an even greater calm than the beginning of the symphony itself. This is borne out also by the tempo marking Pochettino ritenuto, tranquillo.

At the very end of the first movement, however, the opening theme returns, but in a totally different shape. The theme is heard in the full orchestra, bringing the movement to an end, even though it is not its last appearance in the symhony as a whole.

2nd movement – Allegro assai

In contrast to the dreaming and, later on, triumphal first movement, the second movement is light-hearted and playful. While the first movement had its meditative moments, the second does not stray from its playful character. We could look upon it as virtuoso instrumental music, but I’ll hazard another possible explanation. It is cast in a classic ABA form. The opening section A, which is repeated, holds our attention with its lightness and virtuosity. We know from Fibich’s childhood that the woods were often the place of his games. In his orchestration he uses primarily light timbres. The movement is possibly a picture of frolicking nymphs, Rusalkas, but that hypothesis must be left to the imagination of the listener.


The middle section B, in fact the Trio, is different in that it carries echoes of folk music – of the dance Polka, to be specific. The central passage of this section is developed in an interesting polyphonic fashion.

3rd movement – Adagio non troppo

The third movement – in terms of Fibich’s musical language – is perhaps the most characteristic one. After the playful and frolicsome second movement we enter a world of poetry, of ballad. Fibich does not seem to be speaking of nature at this moment. A telling pencil note in the MS score says “Im Romanzenton”. The opening theme in oboe and horn seems to be telling of ancient romantic deeds, of knights, fallen comrades, mysterious castles, old ruins and stories. The accompaniment in the harp, supported by string pizzicatos, evokes the sound of the lute – the very instrument linked with mediaeval and renaissance imagery. An even more sombre and “heavier” mood enters in bar 16 (gravemente alla marcia funebre).

The music takes on a completely different character in the Poco andante section from bar 17 onward. It has a distinctly folk-like quality with a couple of clarinets holding sway.

A development of the foregoing idea leads us inexorably to the earlier theme which is heard at full volume and with all pomp. This is the climax of the movement – like an ancient castle ruin standing proud in the woods.

This theme, too, gradually subsides and the movement ends quietly, in the same calm manner with which it began.

4thmovement – Allegro con fuoco e vivace

As has been mentioned before, the fourth movement was probably written much earlier than the rest of the symphony. This is a good moment to leave aside the analysis of the individual movements. The fourth movement puts a virtuoso full stop after them in an act of bright jubilation.

But there is room also for a contrasting lyrical theme.

Both themes return several times and in various forms. But before we hear the closing coda which rounds off the symhony in a virtuoso manner, a last reminiscence of the opening theme of the first movement makes its appearance as if interrupting the flow of the music and calming the atmosphere.

The final section is then all the more thunderous, bringing the work to its end. The First Symphony of Zdeněk Fibich ends in a triumphal spirit.