Dvorák, Antonín

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DVOŘÁK, ANTONÍN (1841–1904), Bohemian composer.

A popular postcard sold in tourist shops in Prague pictures caricatures of "The Czech Quartet," the most important representatives of four generations of composers in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries: Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), and Bohuslav Dvor Martinů (1890–1959). The legacy bequeathed to Martinů by his three predecessors was considerable. Cultivating a nationalist agenda initiated by Smetana, Dvořák established himself as the most important spokesperson in music for a Czech-speaking populace that, at the time, was ruled from Vienna by the German-speaking Habsburgs. During the 1860s, Dvořák played viola in the the orchestra of the Provisional National Theater—from 1866 conducted by Smetana—and the two composers appreciated each other's works while maintaining cordial, if rather distant, relations. Dvořák and the younger Janáček first became acquainted in 1875, when Janáček left Brno in Moravia to study at the Prague Organ School (from which Dvořák had graduated in 1859), and they remained close friends right up to Dvořák's death in 1904.

Dvořák seems to have been determined already at an early age to pursue a career in music. The myth that he initially followed his father into the butcher's trade is still being circulated in the early twenty-first century, even though the certificate of apprenticeship that often is presented as documentary proof was shown to be a forgery by the preeminent Dvořák scholar Jarmil Burghauser in 1987. At the time of Antonín's birth in 1841, his father, František (1814–1894), operated a butcher shop while concurrently serving as proprietor of a tavern and small dance hall in Nelahozeves. The village, situated about fourteen miles north and slightly west of Prague, was not a particularly thriving county seat. Besides working as a tradesman, František was an accomplished zither player who, later in life, devoted almost all of his time teaching zither and playing in local folk and dance groups. Thus, he—as also his wife, Anna (née Zdeněk, 1820–1882), whose father was a farm and livestock foreman—quickly recognized and nurtured the young boy's talent for music.

During his formative years, Antonín Dvořák never received anything more than a basic, elementary education, and whatever erudition he demonstrated later in life was the result of knowledge learned on his own. He was a kind, sensitive person, a strict but dedicated teacher, an animal lover, and a good family man to his wife, Anna (née Čermák, 1854–1931), and their five children who grew into adulthood (three others died in infancy). Brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, he remained devoutly religious and frequently wrote on the last pages of musical manuscripts phrases such as Zaplať pán Bůh! or Bohu díky! (Thanks to the Lord!). He was cautious in personal relationships at first, but steadfast in his devotion to his many trusted friends, who came from all walks of life, all classes of society. Michael Beckerman's proposal that he suffered from agoraphobia has generated considerable debate. In any case, Dvořák certainly preferred country environs to the hustle and bustle of urban centers; yet he was fascinated by modern technological developments, most especially steamships and railway locomotives, and the sociological changes they engendered.

Before moving to Prague at the age of sixteen, Dvořák was blessed with the opportunity of studying music with his father and with local Musikanten Nelahozeves, Zlonice, and Českaá Kamenice, and of developing his skills as a practical performing musician in church and with various folk groups and dance bands (principally on violin and organ). As he began to develop as a composer, the music of Wagner was a powerful early influence, as was also that of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Bedřich Smetana, Franz Schubert and, less obviously, Anton Bruckner. Recognition as a composer came slowly at first, more rapidly once his works became known outside of Bohemia, namely in Vienna and the principal cities of Germany. Johannes Brahms played a major role in his early rise to fame by recommending to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin, such worksasthe Slavonic Dances (first series in piano duet and orchestral versions published 1878, second series 1887) and the first set of Moravian Duets for two voices (1879). On the strength of the quality and craftsmanship of his compositions, Dvořák's fame spread rapidly to England and America. Between the years 1884 and 1891, he made eight trips to England for the purpose of personally conducting recently completed works at prestigious choral festivals in London and Worcester (Stabat Mater, 1884; Edward Elgar played in the orchestra for the performance at Worcester), Birmingham (The Spectre's Bride, 1885; Requiem, commissioned by the festival's organizers, 1891), and Leeds (Saint Ludmila, commissioned 1886), and also at concerts of the Philharmonic Society (the Seventh Symphony was commissioned by the Society in 1885).

Dvořák's large-scale choral works are especially popular in England, but elsewhere his instrumental music is generally better known. He cultivated both in nearly equal measure. Americans are familiar with his Symphony no. 9 in E minor, subtitled Z nového světa (From the New World), and Cello Concerto in B minor, both of which he composed in New York City during his tenure from 1892–1895 as director of the National Conservatory of America, and they may also have heard the two great chamber works he wrote during the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, the String Quartet in F major, op. 96, and the String Quintet in E-flat major, op. 97. But the Biblical Songs, also composed in America, are unjustly overlooked, as are the several other major contributions to the genre of song cycle he produced during the course of his career, most significantly the Gypsy Songs (1881) and Love Songs (1888). Since the mid-1980s, several of his eleven operas have been successfully mounted on stages outside of the Czech Republic: these include Vanda (1875, rev. 1880, 1883, 1901), Dimitrij (1882, rev. 1883, 1885, 1895), The Jacobin (1888, rev. 1897), Kate and the Devil (1899), and Rusalka (1900). Dvořák cultivated nearly every type of musical composition, and within each genre there are many gems.

See alsoMusic; Nationalism; Prague.


Beckerman, Michael. New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life. New York, 2003.

Clapham, John. Dvořák. New York, 1979.

Dvořák, Antonín. Antonín Dvořák: Letters and Reminiscences. Edited by Otakar Šourek. Translated by Roberta Finlayson Samsour. Prague, 1954. Reprint, New York, 1985.

Hurwitz, David. Dvořák: Romantic Music's Most Versatile Genius. Pompton Plains, N.J., 2005.

Alan Houtchens