Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic); (died May 1, 1904, in Prague); son of Frantisek (a butcher and innkeeper) and Anna Zdenek Dvorak; married Anna Cermakova, November, 1873; children: Otakar, Otilie Suk, Aloisie, Anna, Antonin, Magda. Education: Prague Organ School, 1857-59.
Considered the greatest composer that the Czech nation ever produced, Antonin Dvorak wrote a career's worth of classical works for orchestra, symphony, and choir that survive as some of the most majestic and acclaimed works of nineteenth-century Romantic music. Dvorak's most lasting legacy to musical history, however, is the way in which he infused his work with melodies and elements from Bohemian folk tunes, Gypsy rhythms, and even African-American spirituals. The freshness of spirit and sense of delight that are hallmarks of Dvorak's music, according to many scholars, are considered emblematic of the composer's pleasant, unassuming personality and lifelong devotion to both family and a beloved home in the Czech countryside.
Dvorak was born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia in 1841, a village about 45 miles north of Prague. He was the first of eight children born to Frantisek Dvorak, a second-generation butcher who also ran a local drinking establishment. The elder Dvorak was musically inclined and proficient on the zither and violin, thus little Antonin was exposed to music at an early age, and was reportedly a keen participant in the traditional folk dances that were an integral part of village social life. As a child, Dvorak sang in the church choir and was a student at the village school. The local organist, a man named Josef Spitz, taught Dvorak the violin, and his gifts gained him a place as a junior member Nelahozeves's village band.
Around the age of eleven Dvorak was sent to another town to learn the butcher's trade. The following year, in 1853, he arrived in the town of Zlonice to study German-Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and German was the language of government, trade, and commerce. Dvorak was fortunate enough to find a language teacher, Antonin Liehmann, who was also an accomplished musician, and Liehmann began training him on the organ, piano, and viola; he also gave him a solid grounding in musical theory. But understandably, the youth was not learning a great deal of German, and so Dvorak's father, still convinced of his son's destiny as a butcher and tavern keeper, sent him to a more rigorous school. He returned to Zlonice upon completion, and with Liehmann's help convinced his father to send him to Prague for further musical study. An uncle offered to pay the tuition.
Gained Early Renown in Prague
At the age of 16, Dvorak entered Prague's Organ School. He graduated two years later in 1859. He began playing in local ensembles in Prague, but was too poor to buy musical scores; he did not even have his own piano and spent a great deal of time in a friend's quarters. In 1862 he began playing in a small orchestra which evolved into the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. Dvorak became its principal violinist, but also played the viola over the next decade for this leading Prague ensemble. In 1866 Bedrich Smetana, considered the first great composer to emerge from Bohemia, became the orchestra's conductor as well as a mentor to Dvorak, encouraging him to write music based on traditional folk tunes.
During the 1860s Dvorak played in cafes and theaters, and also taught music privately. He wrote his first symphony, No. 1 in C Minor, The Bells of Zlonice, in 1865, and also began to write for the opera. Much of this early work was reminiscent of the heavy, somber compositions of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms, the most famous living German composers of this era. But it was an 1872 setback that forced Dvorak to re-examine his inspirations: with the Prague Philharmonic, Smetana conducted the overture for an opera Dvorak had written, but King and Charcoal Burner was deemed too complicated for staging. Depressed, Dvorak destroyed some of his older compositions, but in the end rewrote King and Charcoal Burner and used far more Bohemian melodies and themes. It debuted successfully in Prague in November of 1874.
Found Mentor in Brahms
In 1873 Dvorak took a post as the organist at St. Adalbert's in Prague. He also married Anna Cermakova, one of his former students, that same year. His first true success also came in 1873 when a choral work, Heirs to the White Mountain, was enthusiastically received at its initial performance in March. He had based the work on a patriotic poem recalling a Czech defeat in 1620. The following year, with a newfound sense of confidence in his abilities, Dvorak entered the Austrian State Stipendium competition. Brahms sat on its jury, and was greatly impressed by the young Czech and his ability to integrate Bohemian folk melodies into a serious classical opus. Dvorak was awarded a respectable prize that year, and Brahms helped him find a publisher for his music.
In 1878 the music for Dvorak's Slavonic Danceswas published and these eight Bohemian folk melodies, based on the polka and similar dances from his native area, were immediately praised for their originality. The spirit of the work also fit well with the emergence of Czech nationalist sentiment in this era, as its people struggled to maintain an identity separate from the Empire. Slavonic Dances were originally written as a piano work, but Dvorak later orchestrated them; their first public performances took place the following year in Hamburg, Germany and Nice, France. The continued good reception that greeted performances across Europe brought the composer great acclaim. Dvorak finally began to gain some measure of financial stability, and was able to purchase a home for his growing family in the Czech countryside at Vysoka.
In 1877, one of the Dvorak's children died in infancy, and in grief Dvorak-a devout Roman Catholic-he began writing his Stabat Mater. This was a Latin poem from the early 14th century that several other well-known composers had also set to music. Dvorak's version was first performed in 1880, and its debut in England nearly three yeas later marked the beginning of Dvorak's successful liaison with British audiences and the London Philharmonic. His works became extremely popular there, and Dvorak frequently sailed there to debut new works.
A Staunch Nationalist
Dvorak continued to write operas based on Czech lore. The Jacobin and Dimitrij, both of which emerged during the 1880s, were well received. Kate and the Devil (1898) won him a prize of two thousand kroner from the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts. The Cunning Peasant (1877) enjoyed numerous performances across Europe over the course of several years, though for some years a debut in Vienna-the center of the opera world-was stymied by nationalist sentiment inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Officials at the Vienna Opera had declined to stage Dvorak's Czech operas, and requested that he write a German-language work. He balked at the insult, and felt to do so would be a betrayal of his Czech pride. Yet Dvorak continued to enjoy great success abroad during the 1880s. His cantata, The Spectre's Bride, was well received at its debut in 1884, though the composer often dreaded the task of conducting this four-to-five hour performance himself. St. Ludmilla was a similar choral work that debuted in London in 1886 with a 350-member choir, based on the Slavic saint and her conversion to Christianity.
In 1891 Dvorak became a professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory, but left the following year when he was hired by the National Conservatory of Music in Manhattan to serve as its director. His generous $15,000 a year salary was paid by Jeanette Thurber, one of the school's founders, but her family fortune soon declined as a result of Wall Street financial crises, and she grew arrears in his salary. At the conservatory, he was expected to take a light teaching load and serve as a composer in residence. During this time he became greatly enamored of African-American and Native American music, and began writing his best known work, Symphony from the New World, No. 9 in E Minor, during this period. First performed at Carnegie Hall in December of 1893 by the New York Philharmonic, it made its European debut-conducted by Dvorak during a trip home-in October of 1894 in Prague at its National Theater.
In parts of Symphony from the New World can be heard melodies Dvorak borrowed from indigenous American sources, which fascinated him as much as the rustic peasant dances of his native Bohemia once had. "Fierce debate raged about whether Dvorak had used Negro and American Indian tunes as the basis for this most loved of symphonies, or whether it was a Czech work that had captured the spirit of American national melodies," noted Jeremy Nicholas in The Classic FM Guide to Classical Music. "A century later it seems hugely unimportant when we are swept along with Dvorak's masterly orchestration and his unforgettable themes." Nicholas also noted that in England a few bars from Dvorak's No. 9 became indelibly associated with a brand of brown bread after it they were used in a memorable television advertisement.
Died in Poverty
From 1892 to 1895 Dvorak lived on E. 17th Street in New York City, and spent summers in Iowa in a small town founded by Bohemian immigrants called Spillville. He also traveled to the Chicago World Exhibition in 1893, and conducted an orchestra there on Czech Day. But he was homesick for the Bohemian countryside, the house in Vysoka, and his family so despite the debt still owed him by Thurber, he ended his ties with the Conservatory in 1895 and returned home.
Dvorak returned to his professorship at Prague Conservatory, and became its director in 1901. That same year he was honored in his homeland on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, and became the first musician ever to be named to the Austrian House of Lords. He devoted his last years to working on an opera, Armida, but despite his international recognition he had achieved, he lived in relative poverty as a result of unfavorable contracts with his music publishers. The composer was diagnosed with a kidney disease and contracted influenza after Armida's first ill-fated performance. He died several weeks later on May 1, 1904. A national day of mourning was declared, and Dvorak was honored with a burial in Vysehrad Cemetery, where many prominent Czechs are also buried.
by Carol Brennan
Antonin Dvorak's Career
Violinist and viola player in National Opera Orchestra of Prague, 1862-71; wrote first symphony, 1865; private music teacher in Prague, 1861-1878; organist at St. Adalbert's, Prague, 1874; professor of composition, Prague Conservatory, 1891, and director, 1901-04; National Conservatory of Music, New York City, director, 1892-95.
Antonin Dvorak's Awards
Prizewinner in Austrian State Stipendium competition, 1874, 1876, and 1877; Order of the Iron Crown, Austro-Hungarian empire, 1889; elected member of Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts, 1890; honorary doctorates from Prague University, Cambridge University, 1891; first musician to be named to the Austrian House of Lords, 1901.
- Selected discography
- Dvorak: No. 1 in C Minor, The Bells of Zionice, with Berliner Staatskapelle, Berlin Classics, 1979.
- Dvorak: Stabat Mater, Psalm 149/Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra , Chandos, 1991.
- Dvorak: The Greatest Hits , Reference Gold, 1993.
- Dvorak: Overtures, Vanda, Carnival, Othello, My Home , Naxos, 1994.
- Dvorak: Symphony from the New World, No. 9 in E Minor , BBC Radio, 1995.
- Dvorak: Opera Overtures and Preludes/Robert Slankovsky , Marco Polo, 1996.
- Slavonic Dances/Berliner Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel , EMI Classics, 1997.
- Dvorak: Rusalka/Mackerras, Fleming, Heppner, et al. , London/Decca, 1998.
- Dvorak: Slavonic Dances Op. 46 & 72/Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra , Telarc, 1999.
- Nicholas, Jeremy, The Classic FM Guide to Classical Music , Pavilion, 1997.
- Sadie,Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , Macmillan, 1980.
- Soleil, Jean-Jacques, and Guy Lelong, Musical Masterpieces , Chambers, 1991.
- American Record Guide , September/October 1996, p. 115; September/October 1998, pp. 83-101.