Antonín Dvořák

Born in Mühlhausen (near Prague), September 8, 1841;
died in Prague, May 1, 1904

Was there ever a composer more beloved than Dvořák? “No one doesn’t like Dvořák” might well be his calling card. The New World Symphony surely ranks among the top ten most popular symphonies ever written (there are well over one hundred recordings of it), and his Cello Concerto is widely regarded as the finest in the repertory for that instrument. But there’s a lot more to Dvořák than these two superb masterpieces. His catalogue includes major compositions for virtually every genre except ballet. Let’s take a closer look.

Early Life

The first of eight children, Antonín Dvořák was born into a poor family in what was then Bohemia (later part of Czechoslovakia and today the Czech Republic). Antonín was the son and grandson of butchers, and this was the trade for which he was apprenticed. Fortunately, events led him elsewhere. By the age of sixteen, his musical gifts were sufficiently apparent that he was allowed to go live with relatives in Prague and attend the organ school there. Over the next decade or so he eked out a living playing violin and viola in various local ensembles, then organ at St. Adalbert’s Church. He also dabbled in composition, but no one took much notice until his patriotic cantata Hymnus was performed in 1873 (Dvořák was now 32).

The Brahms Connection

Another lucky break came two years later, when Brahms heard Dvořák’s Moravian Duets for two sopranos and piano, and was so impressed that he persuaded Simrock, his publisher in Berlin, to publish them. Their success led to the commission for a set of Slavonic Dances, modeled more or less on Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, which had proved to be a big hit. Dvořák quickly wrote out eight dances for piano duet in the spring of 1878, and immediately afterwards orchestrated them.

On His Way to Fame

Those Slavonic Dances proved to be everything Simrock had hoped for, and he made a handsome profit on them. Wishing to capitalize on this hot new property, Simrock requested a second set of dances, but Dvořák proved more dilatory this time, producing them only eight years later. In the meantime, his market value had risen dramatically, and he was able to command ten times the fee Simrock had paid him for the first set. These dances, still popular today, were played on pianos in drawing rooms and parlors and studios in countless European homes as well as by orchestras large and small. Dvořák was on his way to international fame.

An Invitation to the New World

Years later, when Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, an immensely wealthy New York patroness of the arts, needed a new president for the National Conservatory she had founded in 1885, she invited Dvořák to come over and accept the post. At first he refused but she was so insistent and offered so much money ($15,000 for one season, the equivalent of about $300,000 Canadian today!), that he finally accepted. He found an apartment at 327 East 17th Street (it was demolished in the early 1990s), just down the street from the Conservatory, and moved in in the fall of 1892. There he wrote, among other things, his ninth and final symphony, From the New World.

The "New World" Symphony

Thurber had wanted from Dvořák a symphony embodying his thoughts and feelings about America. Actually, the New World Symphony may have been written in the New World, but it is not specifically about the New World. True, there are themes that could be construed as being “authentic” songs of the American Indians or African-Americans, but in fact, as in the composer’s Slavonic works, he did not actually quote directly from folksong but rather composed his own based on study of the source material.

The symphony was a huge success at its premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1892 and has been in the forefront of the repertory ever since. Other notable New World works are the String Quartet in F major and the String Quintet in E-flat major, both nicknamed American and composed in the summer of 1893 in a little town called Spillville, located in northeastern Iowa more than 1,500 kilometers from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Why Spillville? Because it was a farming community of Czech immigrants, a place where Dvořák could feel at home amidst the customs, language and culture of his native land. Spillville isn’t on the way to or from anywhere. The nearest real city in any direction is well over one hundred kilometers away. Spillville’s population barely tops 400. But it does sit on some of America’s most beautiful and fertile farmland, exuding a sense of wholesome well-being.

More New World Music

Dvořák remained in America until the spring of 1895. Additional New World compositions included a cantata known as The American Flag and a series of Humoresques for piano, of which No. 7 has become one of the most famous tunes in classical music and has been arranged for practically everything. Also in America Dvořák wrote his great Cello Concerto, though it was premiered only in 1896, after he had left New York.

Back in the Old World

After returning to the Old World, Dvořák now focused his attention on a genre he had previously neglected, the symphonic poem (including The Water Goblin, The Noonday Witch and The Golden Spinning Wheel, all inspired by Czech folk tales) and opera, a genre he had by no means previously neglected but which he now pursued with renewed vigor. Of his ten operas, only Rusalka (based in part on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid), has taken hold outside the composer’s homeland, even though some of the others are equally fine works (The Jacobin and The Devil and Kate in particular).

Chamber Music

There is much great music by Dvořák still awaiting popular acceptance. Of his fifteen string quartets, the American is by far the best known but at least half a dozen others are of the same superlative quality. In fact, within the realm of chamber music, in both quantity and quality Dvořák’s output ranks as one of his greatest achievements, a body of works not surpassed by that of any other nineteenth-century composer and equaled only by Beethoven and Brahms.

Choral Music 

Choral music? Dvořák's Stabat mater, composed in response to the deaths of three of his children within a period of less than two years, and the Requiem rank among the most eloquent and moving meditations on the mystery of human existence. St. Ludmilla made a big impression when premiered at the Leeds Festival and, within the realm of secular music, The Spectre’s Bride had an even bigger impact when premiered in Birmingham. (England and Dvořák had a longstanding love affair – the composer visited the country nine times and saw many of his major works premiered there.)

A Simple Man

All his life, Dvořák remained a gentle, uncomplicated person who enjoyed the pleasures of simple country living. Even at the height of fame, fortune and glory, he never lost that sense of humility that made him so endearing to others. He had none of the anxieties, neuroses, gloomy outlooks or egotism that affected so many of his contemporary colleagues. His passions, besides music, were raising pigeons and watching trains. He was content to compose at the kitchen table while family life swirled about him. In New York he could work happily while outside his window the racket of streetcars and shoppers would have sent almost any other creative artist into a frenzy. Dvořák was also a deeply religious man and signed each of his scores “Thanks be to God.” In Dvořák, we too have much to be thankful for.