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Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904)

 B i o g r a p h y

Dvořák, Antonín (Leopold) (b Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841; d Prague, 1904). Cz. (Bohem.) composer. Son of a village butcher, Dvořák as a child helped in the shop and also showed talent as a violinist. At 14 he was sent to relatives in Zlonice to learn Ger.; while there he was taught va., org., pf., and counterpoint by A. Liehmann. From 1857 to 1859 he attended the Org. Sch., Prague, leaving to become va. player in a band and later in the orch. of Prague Nat. Th., 1866-73, playing under Smetana. At this time he comp. several works which he later destroyed or withdrew, the most significant being a song-cycle Cypress Trees from which he drew themes in later years (for the Vc. Conc., for example). The cycle was a tale of disappointed love, the result of Dvořák's disappointment that a girl he adored married someone else. (He later married her sister.) Like most young composers of the time, his natural tendencies were complicated by the inescapable influence of Wagner. His first opera, Alfred (1870) was Wagnerian in tone. Three years later he had his first major success with a cantata, Hymnus (The Heirs of the White Mountain), which enabled him to give up his orch. playing. In 1874 his sym. in Eb won him an Austrian nat. prize, Brahms being on the jury. Two years later the Moravian duets won him the same prize, and Brahms recommended them to the publisher Simrock. The nationalist element in such works as the Slavonic Rhapsodies—the results of Smetana's beneficial influence—earned Dvořák increasing recognition and requests for new works e.g. from Joachim for a vn. conc. and from Hans Richter for a sym. Both Richter and Bülow championed his mus. in their concerts. In 1884 he paid the first of 9 visits to England and cond. his Stabat Mater which had scored a tremendous success the previous year under Barnby. His popularity in Britain was immediate and sustained both as comp. and cond., and he was financially successful enough to be able to buy an estate in S. Bohemia. Several of his works were written for or first perf. in Eng., e.g. the sym. in D minor (No.7), comp. for the Phil. Soc. (1885), the cantata The Spectre's Bride (Birmingham, 1885), the oratorio St Ludmila (Leeds, 1886), the sym. in G major (No.8) (Phil. Soc. 1888), and the Requiem (Birmingham, 1891). Cambridge made him Hon. D.Mus. in 1891 and in the same year he was appointed prof. of comp. at Prague Cons. The Cons. granted him leave to accept the invitation of Mrs Jeanette Thurber, founder in 1885 of the Nat. Cons. of Mus., NY, to become dir. of the cons. He remained in Amer. for 3 years, a fruitful period in which he wrote some of his finest works, incl. the ‘New World’ Sym., the vc. conc., the Biblical Songs, the str. qt. Op.96, and the str. quintet Op.97. His art seems to have been intensified by a combination of the influence of Negro melodies and of a deep homesickness. He returned to his teaching post in Prague in 1895, becoming dir. of Prague Cons. in 1901. His pupils incl. his son-in-law Suk, and Novák. In his last years he devoted his creative energies to symphonic poems and to operas.

Dvořák's mus. is a particularly happy result of the major influences on his art: Wagner, Brahms, and folk mus. His innate gift for melody was Schubertian and his felicitous orchestration, often reflecting natural and pastoral elements, is of an art that conceals art. But a tendency to regard him as blithely naïve would be both unjust and misleading, for his mastery of form and his contrapuntal and harmonic skill are the manifestations of a powerful mus. intellect. The nationalist feeling in his mus. is beautifully integrated into classical structures and his use of Cz. dances and songs, such as the furiant, polka, skočná (reel), dumka, and sousedská (slow waltz), is in no way bizarre. His syms., the vc. conc., and perhaps above all his chamber mus. show the best side of his work; the operas, apart from Rusalka, are only just beginning to travel outside Czechoslovakia; and the choral works which won him such a following in late Victorian Eng. are due for rehabilitation. For many years it was customary to credit him only with the 5 syms. pubd. in his lifetime, but the 4 early examples have now been accepted into the canon and the whole series is numbered chronologically.

Copyright © 1996 Oxford University Press

 A l b u m s

Symphonie No. 9 E-moll op. 95 (From the New World) (Deutsche Grammophone, 1964)
Cello Concerto / Symphony No. 7 (EMI Classic, 1997)

Brahms & Dvořák & Borodin & Smetana:
Tänze (Deutsche Grammophone, 1972)

Dvořák & Saint-Saëns:
Cello Concertos (EMI Classics, 1978)