Antonín Dvořák hailed from a poor family and was by no means predestined to become a composer. According to legend, his first training led him to the slaughtering house: as the son of a butcher and innkeeper, he is said to have first learned his father’s vocation. But it soon became apparent that he was a lot better at producing symphonies than sausages. He learned violin, piano, and organ as a child and composed his first piece at the age of 14. His teacher at the time, the cantor Antonín Liehmann, may not have been able to convince the boy’s parents of his exceptional musical talent, but did successfully persuade them to send him to organ school in Prague. After completing his studies, Dvořák earned what was initially a very small sum of money as an organist, private music teacher, and violist in the orchestra of Prague’s Interim Theater, which was led by Bedřich Smetana. In the mid 1870s, things began to change. He started a family and, having just turned 30, became increasingly active as a composer.
One of his most important supporters was Johannes Brahms, who put Dvořák in contact with his own publisher Simrock in Berlin and secured him a state scholarship from Vienna. Simrock published the Moravian Duets, recommended by Brahms, in 1878, and immediately ordered a further cycle of Slavonic Dances, which would soon afterward earn him worldwide fame and take him on journeys to London, St. Petersburg, and Vienna. From this point onward, his financial struggles were a thing of the past; his family purchased a summer house in the Czech town of Vysoká, which would become Dvořák’s favorite place of residence. Here the down-to-earth and charismatic composer could indulge in both his love of nature and passion for card games. The traditional picture of Dvořák as jovial and occasionally quirky was only one side of the story; he was also quite strict with himself and his pupils (including Erwin Schulhoff).
Shortly after he had accepted a professorship in Prague, he was invited to New York to teach at the National Conservatory of Music in 1891. During his time in North America (1892-95), his ideas for the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) came to fruition. He also wrote the Te Deum and String Quartet, op. 96, known as the “American” String Quartet.
In 1895 Dvořák returned to his home and the Prague Conservatory, increasingly turned away from absolute music, and wrote several symphonic poems; in his final years, he composed only operas, with Rusalka probably the most famous among them.
With his extraordinary melodic inventiveness and skillful incorporation of different folk music elements into a fertile musical foundation, he was, with Smetana, the father of Czech national art music.
Dvořák composed 10 operas, 5 symphonic poems, the Slavonic Dances for orchestra, a cello concerto, the Romance for Violin and Orchestra, cantatas, chamber music and piano works, and 9 symphonies, including his most famous: the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95, “Novosvětská” or “Z Nového světa” (“From the New World”), composed in 1893 and premiered on December 16, 1893.
String Quartet No. 12, op. 96 (1893)
Mass in D major, op. 86 for Solo Voices, Mixed Choir, and Organ (1887), orchestral version (1892)
Stabat Mater, op. 58 (1876/instrumentation 1877)
Psalm 149 for Mixed Choir and Orchestra (1887)
Requiem, op. 89 for Solo Voices, Mixed Choir, and Orchestra (1890)
Opera Rusalka (1900, premiered on March 31, 1901)
Te Deum, op. 103 for Solo Voices, Mixed Choir, and Orchestra (1892)
Did you know?
“This guy has more ideas than all of us. Anyone else could glean from whatever he has discarded and use it as their main themes.” - Johannes Brahms.
Dvořák was a devout Catholic, and behind each of his works, like those of Joseph Haydn, was a “thanks to God.”
He was kind-hearted, but sometimes a bit moody: “This business of composing is a frightful matter before one has committed anything concrete to paper,” as Dvořák is reported to have complained to a friend.
Hope for the USA: the founder of national music.
Composing the New World Symphony put a lot of demands on Dvořák, as he explained: “Americans are expecting great things of me: I’m supposed to show them the way to the promised land, and to the kingdom of new and independent art - in short, to create a national music! If the small Czech nation has such musicians, why shouldn’t they have them, too, which such an enormous country and so many people!”
A passionate “trainspotter”: Dvořák’s love of locomotives was legendary. When he was young, he followed the construction of the Prague-Dresden train line with eager fascination. When the first steam locomotive, the famous “Eger,” roared by his childhood home, little Antonin was deeply impressed. So impressed that for the rest of his life, he would attentively follow the latest developments in locomotive construction. While in New York, ships became part of his passion.
A dove enthusiast: in his country house in Vysoká, he kept many different kinds of doves and devoted a great deal of time to them.