Personalities | Antonín Dvořák | Late Romantic | Classical
(An’-to-nyen Dvôr’zhak) 1841–1904
Dvořák was the pre-eminent composer of the Czech national revival. Arguably his achievement was less fundamental than Smetana’s, but he developed a strong international profile and for millions his style epitomizes ‘Czechness’ in music.
The Czech influence in his work is hard to demonstrate and he almost never quoted folksong, but the appeal of his melodies, rhythmic drive, rich emotion and strong grasp of form, demonstrated in a huge number of works, have always proved seductive. The uncomplicated, direct melody and greater simplicity of form in works composed during his two stays in the US (1892–94 and 1894–95) have guaranteed that compositions such as ‘From the New World’ Symphony (No. 9) and the ‘American’ Quartet are among the most popular concert works ever composed.
Roots and Early Struggles
Dvořák was born to near-poverty in the village of Nelahozeves on the river Vltava, north of Prague. There was music in the family, but they made their living as innkeepers and butchers. Dvořák’s musical talent soon became clear; eluding the family trade, he studied music and enrolled at the Prague Organ School in 1857. Two years later he took up a career as viola player in the Prague Provisional Theatre orchestra until 1871. He lived in great poverty in these years, but acquired a range of musical experiences, including the music of Wagner, Smetana, Liszt and Verdi, and soon began to find his own voice. A decisive moment for his reputation in Prague came with the successful premiere of his cantata The Heirs of the White Mountain on 9 March 1873.
Success and Maturity
Later in 1873 Dvořák married Anna Cermáková. Tragedy and success marked the couple’s lives in the mid-1870s. Three children were born and died between 1875 and 1877; at the same time Dvořák was awarded an Austrian state stipend for poor artists, which greatly increased his productivity. Judging candidates for the stipend brought Brahms into contact with Dvořák’s music and he helped arrange the publication of the Moravian Duets in Germany. Their popularity was eclipsed by that of the Slavonic Dances (1878) which, in two years, transformed his reputation from a local to an international one. An invitation to London in 1883 resulted in a triumphant performance of his Stabat Mater and led to six more visits to England, for which he composed his Seventh Symphony, The Spectre’s Bride and the Requiem. Dvořák was also extremely active at home writing, among much else, the operas Dimitrij and The Jacobin. During these years he developed links with important conductors, among them Richter, and became a firm friend of Brahms, Joachim and Tchaikovsky.
The Capacity for Surprise
Alongside the symphonic and chamber music of the 1870s and 80s, Dvořák produced works such as the Stabat Mater which display a command of large-scale composition unparalleled in the Czech Romantic repertory. In this work, and in his operas, he showed an admiration for Italian music alongside the influences of...
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