Antonin Dvorák - Biography


Antonin Dvorak the great Czech composer was born on September 8th 1841 in Nelahozeves Bohemia on September 8th 1841 and died in Prague on May 1st 1904. Dvorak was the son of a butcher who was also an innkeeper. Though Dvorak’s father intended him to learn his trade he recognized his musical talent and received instruction on the piano and violin from a local musician. As Dvorak’s talent blossomed he was sent for instruction at a musical school in Prague to study with the music director of a church musical school Karl Pitsch. In the 1860’s he played viola in an opera house orchestra lead by another great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. Dvorak wrote his First Symphony in 1865 entitled the Bells of Zlonice in 1865; the score was lost until the 1920’s and was not performed until the 1930’s. In fact his first four symphonies were not published during his lifetime and had to wait until the 1950’s to become part of his numerical canon.


During this period he fell in love with one of his music pupils Josefina Cermakova and composed a cycle song the Cypress Trees to express his love; as it turned out he married her sister Anna in 1873.Dvorak composed a Second Symphony in 1866 to no acclaim but scored his first personal success with a Cantata Hymnus. An important milestone in his career occurred when his Third Symphony in E Flat was composed in 1874.Dvorak entered a number of works into various Austrian musical competitions (Bohemia was part of the Austrian Empire at the time). One of these works came to the attention of the powerful Viennese music critic Hanslick who pointed the works out to Brahms who was impressed. Brahms recommended him to his publisher Simrock who published his first set of Slavonic Dances in their 4 hand piano version (he orchestrated them later on) and a group of vocal Moravian Duets. They were a great success upon publication in 1878. He composed his first major choral work Stabat Mater in 1880. Dvorak in the interim composed a Fourth Symphony in D Minor Op. 13 and his Fifth Symphony in F major in 1879 which was the first Dvorak recognized but was confusingly published and known as number 3 until the 1950’s. Dvorak wrote what is undisputedly his first great symphony the Sixth in D Major Op. 80. This symphony which is obviously modeled after Brahms Second Symphony structurally but has a charm that is uniquely Dvorak.


Dvorak’s Stabat Mater became a success in Oratorio focused Victorian England and Dvorak was invited to England in 1884 to lead concerts of his work. He wrote what many consider his symphonic masterpiece the Seventh Symphony in D Minor Opus 80 for London where it was premiered in 1885. Dvorak was also rapidly compiling a number of major pieces of chamber music including the E major Quartet Opus 80, the D Minor Quartet Opus 34, the E Flat Quartet OP. 51 ,the Piano Quintet Op 81, and the Four String Trio’s including the famed Dumka. He composed an Oratorio specifically for England St. Ludmilla premiered in 1886. Establishing himself as a an opera composer was important for Dvorak and his first efforts were not that successful there was first Alfred of 1870, The King and Charcoal Burner from 1872, The Stubborn Lovers of 1874, Vanda of 1875, the Cunning Peasant of 1877 and Vanda of 1881.These works have had some posthumous performances in the Czech Republic and Slovakia but have not established themselves elsewhere.


Dvorak was becoming a prosperous man with a family soon to have nine children. His formal clothing contrasted to his rough bewhiskered appearance was to give him the nickname of “The peasant with the Frock Coat”. Dvorak in 1889 was to compose one of his most beloved works the Symphony number 8 in G Major Op. 88. He soon appeared in Russia where he developed a friendship with Tchaikovsky. Dvorak in the interim also composed a number of first rate orchestral works such as the Serenade for Strings Op 22, Serenade for Winds Op. 44, Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45, a second series of Slavonic Dances Op 72, a Piano Concerto Op.33, a Violin Concerto Op. 49 , Symphonic Variations Op. 78, and the rollicking Scherzo Capriccio Op. 66. Dvorak was not particularly known for his piano music but wrote the ever popular Humoresque in G Major. His first major composition of the 1890’s was the Requiem composed for a Birmingham choral festival he also received an honorary degree from Cambridge.


In 1892 he accepted the position as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York at 327 west 17th Street that was founded and run by a wealthy music lover Jeannette Thurber who gave Dvorak what was then an enormous salary of $15,000 a year He quickly became interested in the music of American Blacks and Native Americans. Dvorak was also a train buff and spent a lot of time tracking the movements of New York Central trains coming in and out of Grand Central Station. His main conduit to native African American spirituals was through his student Henry Burleigh who through his tutelage by Dvorak became one of the first Afro -American concert composers. Dvorak wrote his most famous piece the Symphony number 9 “From the New World” in the winter of 1893, the work is in the spirit of African American and Native American Music without actually copying them. Ironically the famous English horn theme of the Second Movement Largo was turned into a spiritual “Going Home’. In fact the movement was inspired by Longfellow’s Hiawatha which Dvorak wanted to set an opera to. The work was to have a triumphant premiere in Carnegie Hall on December 15th 1893. Dvorak was homesick for Bohemia he heard about a Czech speaking village in Spillville Iowa where he spent the spring and summer of 1893 he was write his American Quartet Op. 96, the Cantata American Flag ,an American Suite. Upon his return to New York in 1894 he was inspired by Victor Herbert who besides being a famed operetta composer was also a cellist to write the greatest of Cello Concertos Op 104 in B Minor.


Dvorak did not renew his contract for in New York after his third year and left New York for Prague in 1894 and resumed his post at the Prague Conservatory where he was to become director in 1901. Dvorak in these final years was to have success in opera which had eluded him with Rusalka (written in 1900) his one opera which was to become internationally famous and the comic Devil and Kate. Dvorak in his last years was to write a series of five Symphonic Poems four of which are based on some rather gruesome folk tales by Karel Erbin that are very colorful and have become increasingly popular due primarily to fine recordings . Dvorak died on May first of 1904 of heart failure his death was particularly mourned in his native country and in America.


Dvorak’s reputation was always high among the musical public but not always high among critics. The problem was until the widespread dissemination of his music on recordings from Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s and 1960’S the majority of his music was unknown. As alluded to before his first four symphonies were not published until fifty years after his death (until the late 1950’s the New World was known as Symphony number five not nine). Through our knowledge of his Opera’s along with the full extent of his Chamber, Symphonic and his Choral works we can see what a fine master he was. We have been lucky to have magnificent recordings from conductors like Istvan Kertestz, Rafael Kubelik, George Szell, Vaclav Talich, Karel Ancerl and Vaclav Neumann who has given us the full measure of his music.

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