Antonin Dvorak

Category: Musician

Learn more about Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Leopold Dvorak (September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904) was one of the first Czech composers to achieve widespread international acclaim. He was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, in what was then the Austrian Empire. He was the first of eleven children born to Frantisek and Anna Dvorak, and he was baptized as a Roman Catholic in his village’s church of St. Andrew. His Catholic upbringing and love of Nelahozeves and his Bohemian heritage were to strongly influence his musical career.

In 1847, Dvorak entered primary school, where he was taught to play violin by his teacher Joseph Spitz. He showed early talent and skill, playing in a village band and in church. Frantisek, pleased with his son’s gifts, sent thirteen-year-old Antonin to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonin Zdenek in order to learn the German language. Dvorak’s German-language teacher, Anton Liehmann, also taught organ, piano, and violin, and music theory. Liehmann was the church organist in Zlonice and sometimes let Antonin play the organ at services. Dvorak took further organ and music theory lessons at Ceska Kamenice with Franz Hanke, who encouraged his musical talents even further and was more sympathetic. His first composition, the Forget-Me-Not Polka in C (Polka pomnenka) was written possibly as early as 1855.

Liehmann and Zdenek, urged Frantisek Dvorak to allow his son to become a musician; Frantisek agreed, on the condition that sixteen-year-old should work toward a career as an organist. After leaving for Prague in September 1857, Dvorak entered the city’s Organ School, studying singing with Josef Zvonar, theory with Frantisek Blazek, and organ with Joseph Foerster. The latter was not only a professor at the Prague Conservatory, but also a composer for the organ; his son Josef Bohuslav Foerster became a better-known composer. Dvorak also took an additional language course to improve his German and worked as an “extra” violist in numerous bands and orchestras, including the orchestra of the St. Cecilia Society. Dvorak graduated from the Organ School in 1859, ranking second in his class. He applied unsuccessfully for a position as an organist at St. Henry’s Church, but he remained undaunted in pursuing a musical career.

In 1858, he joined Karel Komzak’s orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague’s restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Mayr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra; Mayr was replaced as chief conductor by Bedrich Smetana in 1866. Dvorak played viola in the orchestra beginning in 1862. He could hardly afford concert tickets, but his playing in the orchestra gave him a chance to hear music, mainly operas. In July 1863, he played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra.

Because Dvorak was not wealthy when he left Nelahozeves for Prague, he needed to be careful with finances. In 1864, he agreed to split the rent of an apartment with five other people. The constant need to supplement his income pushed him to give piano lessons.

It was in his role as a piano teacher that Dvorak met his future wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefina Cermakova, for whom he apparently composed the song-cycle “Cypress Trees.” However, his love was not reciprocated. In 1873, however, Dvorak married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. The couple were to have nine children between 1874 and 1888.

In 1871 Dvorak left the Provisional Theatre orchestra to have more time for composing. The first public performances of his works were Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 5 in 1872 and, to great critical and popular acclaim, his patriotic cantata The Heirs of the White Mountain in 1873.

On leaving the National Theater Orchestra after his marriage, Dvorak secured the job of organist at St. Vojtech, also called St. Adalbert’s, Church under Josef Foerster, his former teacher at the Organ School. He held this position from 1874 to 1877, but he still found time to compose.

Seeking recognition beyond Prague, he submitted a score of his First Symphony to a prize competition in Germany, but he did not win, and the unreturned manuscript was lost until rediscovered many decades later. In 1874 he made a submission to the Austrian State Prize for Composition, including scores of two further symphonies and other works. Although Dvorak was not aware of it, Johannes Brahms was the leading member of the jury and was highly impressed. The prize was awarded to Dvorak in 1874 and again in 1876 and in 1877, when Brahms and the prominent critic Eduard Hanslick, also a member of the jury, made themselves known to him. Brahms recommended Dvorak to his publisher, who soon commissioned what became the Slavonic Dances, Op. 46. These were highly praised by the Berlin music critic Louis Ehlert in 1878, the sheet music had excellent sales, and Dvorak’s international reputation was launched at last.

Dvorak’s first piece of a religious nature, his setting of Stabat Mater, premiered in Prague in 1880 and was successfully performed in London in 1883, leading to many other performances in the United Kingdom and the United States. In his career, Dvorak made nine invited visits to England, often conducting performances of his own works. His Seventh Symphony was written for London. Visiting Russia in March 1890, he conducted concerts of his own music in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1891 Dvorak was appointed as a professor at the Prague Conservatory. In 1890–91, he wrote his Dumky Trio, one of his most successful chamber music pieces.

In 1892, Dvorak moved to the United States and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. While in the United States, Dvorak wrote his two most successful orchestral works: the symphony From the New World, which spread his reputation worldwide, and his Cello Concerto, one of the most highly regarded of all cello concerti. He also wrote his most appreciated piece of chamber music, the American String Quartet, during this time. Two months before his coming to America, Dvorak had hired as his secretary Josef Jan Kovarik, who had just finished violin studies at the Prague Conservatory and was about to return to his home in the United States. There he continued to serve as Dvorak’s secretary and lived with the Dvorak family. He had come from the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where his father Jan Josef Kovarik was a schoolmaster. Dvorak decided to spend the summer of 1893 in Spillville, along with all his family. It was there that he composed the String Quartet in F (the “American”) and the String Quintet in E-flat. Shortfalls in payment and a reduction of his salary, along with increasing recognition in Europe and an onset of homesickness, led Dvorak to leave the United States and return to Bohemia in 1895.

During Dvorak’s final years, he concentrated on composing opera and chamber music. In November 1895, he resumed his professorship at the Prague Conservatory; later, from November 1901 until his death, he would serve as the Conservatory’s director. Between 1895 and 1897, he completed his string quartets in A-flat major and G major, and he also worked on the cycle of symphonic poems inspired by the collection Kytice by Karel Jaromir Erben. On April 4, 1900 Dvorak conducted his last concert with the Czech Philharmonic, performing Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, and Dvorak’s own symphonic poem The Wild Dove.

In 1898 Dvorak was informed that Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary would award him a gold medal for Litteris et Artibus, with the ceremony taking place before an audience in June 1899. In April 1901, the emperor appointed him a member of the Austro-Hungarian House of Lords.

On April 18, 1904, Dvorak was hit by the flu; he died five weeks later of an undiagnosed cause. His funeral service was held on May 5, and his remains were buried in the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague. Dvorak’s funeral was an event of national significance. Each of Dvorak’s nine operas, except his first, have librettos in Czech and were intended to convey the Czech national spirit, as were some of his choral works. By far the most successful of the operas is Rusalka. Among his smaller works, the seventh Humoresque and the song “Songs My Mother Taught Me” are also widely performed and recorded. Many of Dvorak’s other compositions, such as the Slavonic Dances, were also directly inspired by Czech, Moravian, and other Slavic traditional music. As the basis for his works, Dvorak frequently used Slavic folk dance forms including the skocna; the Bohemian odzemek, furiant, sousedska, and spacirka; the Polish mazurka and polonaise; the Yugoslav Kolo; and folk song forms of Slavic peoples, including the Ukrainian dumka.

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