Personalities | Antonín Dvořák | Turn of the Century | Opera
While Dvořák is best known for his contribution to the symphonic repertoire, opera was a vital part of his musical make-up and he produced 10 stage works during his life. His musical education was traditional: at the Prague Organ School he studied harmony, counterpoint, fugue and chorales. On graduating, he joined the Provisional Theatre orchestra as a violist. Over the following nine years, he performed a catholic mix of repertoire from Italy, Germany and France as well as his native land.
Bedřich Smetana (1824–84) had already blazed a trail with The Bartered Bride (1883–86) by the time Dvořák began serious operatic work. Both shared a fascination with the use of characteristic national melodies and Dvořák’s early comic operas share many elements with his compatriot. The Cunning Peasant (1877), a comic opera written to a libretto by Veselý premiered in 1878, was his first major success and capped an intense period of operatic activity. Dvořák spent much of the 1880s travelling, in particular to England, to oversee performances of his orchestral music. He sustained a steady output of theatrical music but this was cut further by the invitation to direct the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York from 1892. His return to Europe in 1895 coincided with an increased interest in dramatic music, chiefly opera and the symphonic poem. The new operatic fashion for raw, starkly emotional subjects was not for Dvořák, and for his most successful theatre work he took on a folk story by Jaroslav Kvapil. Unlike many operas written at the time, Rusalka is not a high-octane drama but rather a bewitching, lyrical love story told at a distance.
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