Dvořák's Life & Works
Supreme melodist who put Bohemia on the map with his nationalistic symphonies, quartets and operas.
(1841 - 1904)
‘He wrote these symphonies, he wrote tone poems, he wrote operas, he wrote chamber music, he wrote songs, he wrote religious music. He’s just the greatest composer, except Mozart perhaps.’ So claimed the conductor Charles Mackerras, for whom Dvořák was virtually without peer. Dvořák's legacy is so large and varied that it is inevitably uneven. But his mature style, neither conservative nor radical, is always recognizable. In spite of honours and awards he remained a modest man of simple tastes, loyal to his Christian faith and Czech identity.
Dvořák was the son of a butcher and zither-player. Fortunately his parents, although unsophisticated, recognised his precocious talent. They sent him away to study music and to learn German, the language of Bohemia’s educated classes. After graduating from the Prague Organ School in 1859 he joined the orchestra of what became Prague’s Provisional Theatre as a viola player. He played with this group between 1862 and 1871. Composition for now was done on the side. His breakthrough piece was a patriotic cantata, Hymn: The Heirs of the White Mountain (1872). Wider acclaim finally came with the Moravian Duets (1875-77) and a first set of Slavonic Dances (1878).
String Quartet No.12 in F, 'American'
The most popular of all Romantic string quartets, completed in just three days. No wonder the composer signed the bottom of the manuscript: 'Thank God. I am satisfied. It went quickly.'
Cello Concerto in B minor
Dashingly heroic masterpiece that bowled over the normally unruffled Brahms, who gasped: 'I wish I'd known one could write a cello concerto like this as I might have done so myself!'
Slavonic Dances, Opp. 46 & 72 (for orchestra)
Dvořák's two sets of Slavonic Dances embrace some ofthe most indelible miniatures ever written. He was paid a miserly300 marks for the first set but got 3,000 for the second volume!
Dvořák's most imposingly rigorous symphonic masterpiece belongs to the dark period in his life which the composer encapsulated as one of 'doubt, defiance, silent grief and resignation'.
Symphonic charmer overflowing with gentle rustic innocence, carefree enthusiasm and infectious melodies that culminates in a playful variation finale of uncontainable exuberance.
Symphony No.9, 'From the New World'
Dvořák's melodic universality convinced both the Americans andBohemians that he had written a symphony which draws exclusivelyupon the popular folk culture of their respective nations!
Brahms was a friend and mentor. He helped Dvořák acquire a German publisher and was an important influence on his music. The String Sextet (1878), the Sixth (1880) and Seventh (1884-85) Symphonies and the Third Piano Trio (1883) are masterful, but owe much to Brahms’s lead. The Sixth Symphony, for example, contains many allusions to both the character and technique of Brahms’s Second. Much is also owed to the innovations of Liszt and Wagner. But Dvořák's melodic generosity and frankness is his alone.
His first symphony publication came in 1882, although it was in fact the sixth he had written. This led to a confusion over the correct numbers of Dvořák's symphonies that wasn’t resolved until many decades later. At this time so-called ‘international’ composition in fact meant conforming to Austro-German norms. But, as a proud Czech, Dvořák resisted. He was urged by Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick to move to Vienna, but he stayed in Prague. His publisher, Simrock, insisted on Germanicising his first name as ‘Anton’. Dvořák repeatedly asked them to print it correctly as ‘Antonín’, or at least ‘Ant.’.
When Simrock made a derisory offer for Dvořák's folk-inspired Eighth Symphony (1889), the composer had had enough. He offered it instead to Novello, Ewer and Co. in London, who took it gladly. Because of this the symphony was known for a while as the ‘English’ Symphony, despite its overtly Bohemian colour. At least Novello were willing to publish the composer’s first name in full and in Czech.
By now foreign performances had multiplied, and with them came more international commissions. Dvořák's music was much sought after by the big English choral festivals. The oratorio Saint Ludmilla (1885-86) was written for the Leeds Festival and the Requiem (1890) was unveiled in Birmingham. In 1891 he began teaching at the Prague Conservatoire, where Josef Suk was among his most gifted pupils. He toured Bohemia, playing the radically freewheeling ‘Dumky’ Trio (Piano Trio No.4, 1890–91). He also took a tentative step towards the overtly descriptive ‘programme’ music pioneered by Liszt with three overtures, In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello.
The Time in the USA
Meanwhile, in the United States, a National Conservatory of Music was being founded, with the express intention of forging an American national musical style. Dvořák's growing popularity in that country and his skill at blending folk culture with high art made him an obvious choice as its first artistic director. An extravagant salary offer - some 25 times greater than that he was earning in Prague - helped make up his mind to move. He arrived in New York in September 1892 and seems immediately to have been delighted by the diversity of music he heard.
He sought out black musicians to sing him spirituals and plantation songs, and scholars to provide him with transcriptions of Amerindian music. The first work he was inspired to complete became so successful that it risked blinding music lovers to the rest of his output. Dvořák's Ninth Symphony (1893) is subtitled ‘From the New World’. Was Dvořák really trying to forge the kind of American music that his hosts were looking for? Or are its apparently folk-inspired elements simply inventions of his own? In an interview of 1893 he claimed that ‘In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music’.
A victim of ethnic prejudice himself, he probably meant this. Certainly there are echoes of spirituals and plantation songs in the symphony. But we also know that the famous slow movement originated in a never-to-be-realised project after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Hiawatha. Originally intended to evoke Amerindian music, its main theme sounds closer to African-American spirituals to modern ears. The fact that the melody was itself later transformed into a hymn tune doesn’t clarify things. Whatever the truth, the work galvanized New Yorkers at its December 1893 premiere and has wowed audiences ever since.
Dvořák's time in America produced several important works. Among them is the popular Twelfth String Quartet (1893), nowadays known as ‘The American’. Whether its use of five-note scales originates in an indigenous American tradition (as the composer claimed) is debatable. But the call of an American songbird can certainly be heard in the first violin part of the third movement. The Cello Concerto (1894-95), also written in the USA, is one of the crowning items in that instrument’s repertoire, richly eloquent and profoundly nostalgic in tone.
After three seasons away, Dvořák returned home. In 1895 he worked on two final string quartets. One of these, the Thirteenth, turned out to be the most deeply felt and original of all his quartets. He also renewed his determination to succeed in music theatre but scored only one indisputable masterpiece, the magnificent fairy-tale opera Rusalka (1900). Dvořák's apparently direct, spontaneous works hide a sophisticated, multi-layered musical argument. Their paradoxes are those of the man himself.