Dvořák the Bohemian

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Leopold Dvořák (September 8, 1841—May 1, 1904) was born in Bohemia (part of what is now the Czech Republic). He was the first Bohemian composer to achieve worldwide recognition, successfully turning folk material into 19th-century Romantic music. Among Dvořák’s works are nine symphonies, five symphonic poems, several choral works, operas, chamber music, and songs.

He was already an accomplished violinist while still a youngster, accompanying the local dances. Though his parents assumed he would become a butcher and innkeeper like his father, they recognized and encouraged his musical talent. When he was about 12 years old, he moved in with his aunt and uncle to study harmony, piano, and organ. He wrote his earliest works, polkas, during the three years he spent there. In 1857 his music teacher, knowing that young Antonín had gone beyond his own modest abilities to teach him, persuaded his father to enroll him at the Institute for Church Music in Prague. There Dvořák completed a two-year course and performed on viola at various inns and with theatre bands, augmenting his small salary with a few private pupils.

In 1875 Dvořák was awarded a state grant by the Austrian government, and this award brought him into contact with Johannes Brahms, with whom he formed a close and fruitful friendship. Brahms not only gave him valuable advice but also found him an influential publisher in Fritz Simrock, and it was with his firm’s publication of the Moravian Duets (composed 1876) for soprano and contralto and the Slavonic Dances (1878) for piano duet that Dvořák first attracted worldwide attention to himself and to his country’s music. Many of Dvořák’s compositions, such as the Slavonic Dances and his large collection of songs, were directly inspired by Czech, Moravian, and other Slavic traditional music. The admiration of the leading critics, instrumentalists, and conductors of the day continued to spread his fame abroad, which led naturally to even greater triumphs in his own country.

In 1884 he made the first of 10 visits to England, where his choral works enjoyed great success, although only the Stabat Mater (1877) and Te Deum (1892) continue to be performed regularly today.

In 1892, Dvořák temporarily moved to the United States and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. The President of the National Conservatory of Music in America, Jeannette Thurber, offered Dvořák an annual salary of $15,000– twenty-five times what he was paid at the Prague Conservatory. In the winter and spring of 1893, Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No. 9, From the New World, which premiered to tumultuous applause. Certainly, in the United States, it is his most beloved work.

Dvořák’s main goal for his three-year tenure in the United States was to discover “American Music” and compose with it, much as he had used Czech folk idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in America in 1892, he wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of American music. He proposed that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for American composers to create their own national style of music.

I hope you will give this music a good listening. Maybe you could let it run in the background while you tidy the room. Bookmark the article so you can come back and listen to it again. These are masterpieces.

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