1841 — 1904
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Antonin Dvořák was one of the great nationalist Czech composers of the 19th century who earned worldwide proclaim and admiration for his symphonies, chamber music, oratorios, songs and to a small extent, operas.
Dvořák was born in 1841 in Nelahozeves, the eldest son of a butcher and innkeeper who played the zither. In the village school, the teacher and Kantor, Joseph Spitz taught him the violin and he made such rapid progress that before long, he was participating in the musical life of the region, playing popular melodies such as polkas, mazurkas and waltzes and church music at local services. In autumn 1856, Dvořák was sent to the northern Bohemian town of Česká Kamenice to learn organ, music theory and German, which was essential in Bohemia at the time. A year later he began studies at the Prague Organ School and the musical life of the city was a major breeding ground for his creativity: he played the viola in the concerts of the Cecelia Society, which included works byBeethoven, Mendelssohn, Spohr and Schumann and attended many inspiring concerts. He had the chance to hearFranz Liszt performing his own works and attended concerts with Hans von Bülow conducting andClara Schumann performing.
The first of Dvořák’s works to be performed in public was Vzpomínáni (Remembrance) in December 1871, a musical setting to a text by Eliska Krásnohorská. The performance took place as part of a programme that included works by other Czech composers such as Fibich and Bendl. On the 22 November 1872, hisPiano Quintet in A received its premiere.
The first of Dvořák’s works to be printed was Skřivánek (The Lark) in 1873. A major milestone that same year in Dvořák’s career was the successful performance of his patriotic cantata for male voices,Hymnus: Dědicové bílé hory (Hymn: the Heirs of the White Mountain, b27), which was so outstanding that it put Dvořák on the path of an emerging master of Czech music.
Dvořák took up the position of organist at St. Adalbert’s Church in Prague in 1874 soon after getting married, which paid very little, but nevertheless continued to compose a substantial amount of music around this period. The following year, Dvořák applied for the Austrian State Prize in composition and won a grant, which, apart from providing financial help, would eventually place him on the map of internationally acclaimed composers. On the jury were Eduard Hanslick, better known as a music critic, Johann Herbeck, director of the state opera andJohannes Brahms. Brahms was ‘visibly overcome’ by the mastery and skill he found in the fifteen works that he submitted. Dvořák won the grant another time, in 1877, this time receiving a friendly letter from Eduard Hanslick that stated that not only would he again be offered the large sum of money, but himself and Brahms would also assist him in becoming more well-known outside his motherland.
Dvořák’s international career took off on the strength of his interaction with Brahms and Hanslick. HisSlavonic Dances op. 46 and Moravian Duets were reviewed in the BerlinNationalzeitung by the critic Louis Ehlert proclaiming that the dances would ‘make their way around the world’ - and they did exactly that. In 1879 the dances were played in concerts in France, England and the United States and the publisher Simrock had them published, as well as another set of Slavonic Dances, which Dvořák supplied in his op.72 in 1886.
Dvořák travelled to England in 1884 to conduct his Stabat Mater at the Royal Albert Hall and hisHusitská and his 6th Symphony in St. James’s Hall and Scherzo capriccioso and Nocturne in B at the Crystal Palace. His presence in London was memorable and was dubbed ‘the musical hero of the hour’. The London Philharmonic Society made him an honorary member. He left with new commissions, for the forthcoming Birmingham Festival and Leeds Festival. This success led to eight more visits, the last being for the premiere of hisCello Concerto in 1896.
In June 1891, Dvořák was offered a position in New York with a salary 25 times greater than his salary in the Prague Conservatory. On 1 October 1892, Dvořák was welcomed at the National Conservatory in America, not long after a nine-day Atlantic crossing on the SS Saale with his wife and two of his six children. He made his Carnegie Hall debut with hisTe Deum on October 21.
He wrote a letter to his Czech friend Hlávka about his first experiences in New York: ‘The Americans expect great things of me. I am to show them the way into the promised land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short a national style of music!’ Indeed, the reason for the offer was not just due to Dvořák’s international fame but also the fact that he had a great reputation in a nationalistic style; Jeannette Thurber who had offered him the post had long dreamt of the establishing of a national American style of art music.
Dvořák’s 9th Symphony From the New World was premiered in 1893 at Carnegie Hall, conducted by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor Anton Seidl. In the summer of 1893 Dvořák spent an idyllic vacation at Spillville, Iowa, in a small Czech community of around 200 people. He stayed at a house there with his family, which is now a Dvořák museum. The holiday inspired his lyricalString Quartet in F,“American”. The economic crisis that happened that same year was disastrous for Jeannette Thurber who was no longer able to pay Dvořák’s full salary. In 1895, Dvořák and his family returned to Bohemia and, although he was still owed money, he decided not to return to New York to continue his contract. By November 1895, Dvořák was back in Bohemia, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Dvořák’s name has always been associated with his heritage and love for his native land. Dvořák was directly influenced by the political stance of Bohemia during his lifetime, giving his music a richness in folk elements and a very strong Slavic identity, whilst keeping in line with the classical models of the composers he most admired,Bach, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven.
All images courtesy of The Dvorak Society for Czech and Slovak Music.