Dvorak’s ancestors settled in Central Bohemia in the region around Kralupy nad Vltavou, north-west of the Bohemian capital, Prague. The region is home to the village of Nelahozeves, where the composer’s grandparents lived from the year 1818.
Antonin Dvorak (in full Antonin Leopold Dvorak) was born here on 8 September 1841 to Anna and Frantisek Dvorak, as the first of nine children. The family ran a business in house number 12, a cottage that had an inn on the ground floor. A fire broke out here in the summer of 1842 and the future composer was rescued by his father who carried him out to safety. All of Antonin’s predecessors were butchers or innkeepers, thus it was automatically assumed that the first-born child would inherit the business. In addition to the butcher’s trade the Dvorak family line cultivated another talent: a flair for music. However, music-making was merely regarded as a means to brighten up the daily routine and as a way to earn a little on the side. But it wasn’t long before everyone realised things would be different in Antonin’s case.
In music he far surpassed everyone else, so his father entrusted him to the care of Nelahozeves school teacher and musician Josef Spitz, in order that he develop his son’s skills further. Young Dvorak soon mastered the violin and entertained guests at village dances, and it wasn’t long before he gave his first solo appearance as a violinist in the local church serving the nearby village of Veprek. Even so, during his childhood, Dvorak was still expected to help his father with the family business and prepare to take it over one day. His apprenticeship involved visits to local markets in the neighbourhood, where father and son would select livestock. He later described an incident from his young days where he led a head of wild cattle home from the village fair on a rope, whereupon the animal dragged him into a lake. At the time he is said to have vowed in a flood of tears that he was never going to be a butcher.
It was also during this period that Dvorak first set eyes on the trains that would fascinate him his whole life. When he was nine years old he witnessed the construction of the railway which passed through Nelahozeves. The first steam train, a crowning achievement in technological progress at the time, passed through the village in the summer of 1851. It was probably these impressions from his childhood which ignited his future passion for everything associated with modern transport.
At around the same time, Dvorak’s father Frantisek was having trouble with his business and almost went bankrupt. In the hope that he would fare better in a larger community, he decided to move the entire family to the nearby town of Zlonice, where their relatives lived.
Thus, in 1853, at the age of twelve, Antonin found himself under the supervision of Zlonice teacher and multi-instrumentalist Antonin Liehmann. Liehmann, an excellent musician in the vicinity, soon recognised an exceptional talent in young Dvorak and so he began to instruct him in the basics of harmony and organ-playing; later he also allowed Dvorak to play the instrument at Mass. It was during this time that Dvorak wrote his first compositions, short polkas. Since he invested much more of his time learning music than anything else, he began to fall behind with his German, a subject that would be essential to him as a future tradesman. So his father decided to send him to Ceska Kamenice (the majority of whose inhabitants spoke German) to spend a year living in a German-speaking family. Here Dvorak not only improved his German, but he also continued his music after making the acquaintance of the local regenschori, Franz Hanke, who permitted him to play the organ in the local church during Mass. Dvorak never did learn the butcher’s trade, since Liehmann finally managed to convince his father Frantisek that his son’s extraordinary talent deserved the consistent supervision and instruction that only a music institution could provide. Thus, in the autumn of 1857, 16-year-old Dvorak moved to Prague.
The decision had been made to send Dvorak to the Prague organ school which, unlike the Conservatoire, also provided tuition in composition. In addition, here instruction lasted only two years, whereas the course at the Conservatoire required pupils to study for six years. The Institute for Church Music, as the school was officially known, was located in Konviktska street in the Old Town and provided instruction in harmony, counterpoint and the rudiments of composition. The school did not have much in the way of facilities: it comprised three very basic classrooms within a dilapidated former Jesuit college, and the pupils only had one inferior organ at their disposal. These failings, however, were compensated for by the excellent teaching staff who were able to provide their students with solid foundations in music theory and practice. Alongside his studies at the organ school young Dvorak also attended a German school whose fourth year he completed in 1858. Not long after starting his education in the city he became a member of the Cecilian Association Orchestra, where he not only acquired valuable experience as an orchestral viola player, but he also began to familiarise himself with 19th century music.
He graduated from the organ school in July 1859 with a public concert, at which he performed a Bach prelude and fugue and also two of his own works – Prelude in D major and Fugue in G minor. These are some of the first pieces by Dvorak to survive as autographs.
Young Dvorak was extremely short of money during the early stages of his career. For many years – until he got married – he lived with relatives and in rented rooms at various Prague addresses: Initially in his cousin’s flat in Dominikanska (today Husova) street, later with his father’s youngest sister on Karlovo namesti, for about a year in Vaclavska street, and during this time he also had lodgings for one or two years on Senovazne namesti. When he left the organ school he was not yet eighteen years of age and could no longer expect any financial support from his parents, particularly since his father’s business continued to deteriorate. He thus applied for the position of organist at St Henry’s church. He proved to be the best of the six candidates, but he was not accepted due to his lack of experience. Roughly during this same period he decided to accept the post of viola player in the Komzak Ensemble, a small orchestra which performed undemanding programmes at dances, in restaurants and at promenade concerts.
When the Provisional Theatre opened in the autumn of 1862 the entire Komzak Ensemble was engaged as the core of the opera orchestra. Thus, for the next nine years or so, Dvorak performed the viola parts of operas by Verdi, Meyerbeer, Donizetti and others on a daily basis, often conducted by Bedrich Smetana. Nevertheless, this influx of music did not suffice and he studied a huge number of scores at home as well. His meagre income would not allow him to purchase any music, and so he generally borrowed scores from his friend, the composer and choirmaster Karel Bendl, whose flat he frequently visited in order to play on the piano.
String Quintet, Op. 1 While Dvorak was engaged in detailed study of works by the great masters, he was already writing his own music. He probably wrote a large number of works during this time, none of which were performed; he was extremely self-critical and destroyed the majority of his scores. The first work he thought well enough of to assign it an opus number, thus officially embarking on his career as a composer, was String Quintet in A minor from 1861 (Dvorak was nineteen at the time); this was followed by String Quartet in A major, Op. 2. It wasn’t long before he tried his hand at a major musical form, producing his First symphony in the key of C minor with the subtitle “The Bells of Zlonice”, after which he immediately set about writing his extensive Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, which he completed within a mere two months. In the meantime he even managed to write his Cello Concerto in A major for a colleague in the orchestra – all this in cramped conditions living in a single rented room which he shared with several other lodgers.
Dvorak’s pupil and son-in-law Josef Suk later reported – perhaps based on what the composer himself had said – that, around the year 1865, he had fallen for the charms of a young actress from the Provisional Theatre, Josefina Cermakova. His acquaintance with her was in a certain sense a defining moment in his personal life from that point on, since he later married her younger sister Anna (Mozart and Haydn experienced something similar). Not only did Dvorak and Josefina Cermakova work in the same theatre, but the composer also encountered her during his visits to the Cermak family, whom he taught the piano on a regular basis. Dvorak expressed his love for the actress in a cycle of love songs entitled Cypresses, a musical setting of a collection of poems by Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky. Josefina later married Count Vaclav Kounic but Dvorak maintained his affections for her and remained close friends with both of them his whole life. Dvorak returned to Cypresses on many occasions thereafter; its melodies feature in a number of the composer’s later works.
Dvorak’s engagement in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra provided him with a wealth of inspiration via the numerous opportunities to perform various world operatic works and as yet isolated examples of Czech opera (chiefly Bedrich Smetana’s Brandenburgers in Bohemia, Dalibor and The Bartered Bride), which probably played a major role in his decision to try his hand, after chamber and symphonic works, at writing opera as well.
As a completely unknown composer without any means he could not afford to commission a new libretto, and so he used an earlier text, Alfred der Grosse, penned by the Neo-Romantic German poet Karl Theodor Korner. Dvorak’s first opera Alfred was never performed during his lifetime. He soon began work on his second opera, King and Collier, which upon completion he then offered to the Provisional Theatre. After several rehearsals, however, the score was returned to him as unplayable, in response to which Dvorak rewrote the entire opera to the same text. The second musical setting was now regarded as feasible, and Dvorak was able to present himself in public as an opera composer for the first time. The decisive factor in sealing the composer’s reputation on home soil, however, was the extraordinary success of the performance in March 1873 of the Hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain”, set to a text by Vitezslav Halek. With this work the hitherto anonymous violist in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra established himself as an original composer with a promising future whose success on this occasion motivated him to continue his composition work. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reviews of the Hymn he then turned out one work after another: Symphonies No. 3 in E flat major and No. 4 in D minor, three string quartets, the one-act comic opera The Stubborn Lovers and a number of other pieces, some of which did not survive.
While Dvorak’s career as a composer was flourishing, major changes were also occurring in his private life as well. He continued teaching the piano in the Cermak family home and began to form a close relationship with Josefina’s younger sister Anna. Anna Cermakova shared his love of music (Anna played the piano and she was regarded as a fine singer, occasionally performing her husband’s works later on) and the pair were married on 17 November 1873 in the church of St Peter; Dvorak was thirty-two and Anna thirteen years his junior. According to the laws of the time, Anna had not yet reached maturity by the date of the marriage, however, she was in her fourth month of pregnancy. The newly-weds initially lived with Anna’s mother Klotilda Cermakova but, after a few months, they moved to a modest flat in Na Rybnicku street. There Anna gave birth to her first-born son Otakar in April 1874, and it wasn’t long before the arrival of daughters Josefa and Ruzena. The family had very little money, and their friends even arranged a collection for them. Anna contributed to the meagre household budget with the occasional fee earned from singing in Prague churches, both in the choir and as a soloist. At this time Dvorak decided to accept the post of organist at St Adalbert’s church, where he remained for three years. The family’s chief source of funding, however, was still income earned from private tuition.
The situation changed at the beginning of 1875. Dvorak decided to apply for a state scholarship awarded each year to young impoverished artists who demonstrated exceptional talent. In addition to a document confirming his lack of means which Dvorak requested from the Prague municipal authorities, he enclosed his application for the scholarship together with the scores of his last two symphonies and other works, and sent all these together to the Ministry of Culture and Education in Vienna, which allocated the scholarships. He was awarded the highest possible grant of 400 gulden, which represented a fortune for the young family. Dvorak was also successful in subsequent years, winning the award five years in a row. The jury who decided which applicants would receive scholarships – from Dvorak’s second application onwards – also included Johannes Brahms, by then a noted figure. He had a great appreciation for Dvorak from the beginning and they later became lifelong friends. On Brahms’s recommendation, Dvorak also began having his works published by one of the most important German publishers, Fritz Simrock. The fees Dvorak received were initially very low, however, they gradually increased as the composer became more prominent.
The following stage in Dvorak’s career was extremely productive; not only did the state scholarship enable him to focus much more on his composition work, but his contact with the major German publisher paved the way for important connections outside the country. None of this came a moment too soon: despite the huge number of works he had already written, Dvorak, now past the age of thirty, was still an unknown entity in the eyes of the public at large. In terms of his subsequent career as a composer, the most important works to come out of this period were his Moravian Duets, which attracted the attention of the critics, for the most part in German-speaking territories. Apart from the duets, Dvorak turned out a whole series of other pieces, including the popular Serenade for Strings in E major, the Piano Quartet in D major and Fifth Symphony in F major.
After this joyful period in Dvorak’s career which saw him extremely focused on his composition work, however, he suffered an unexpected blow. After the death of his daughter Josefa, who died two days after birth, his one-year-old daughter Ruzena died under tragic circumstances (phosphorus poisoning) in August 1877; and, one month later, his son Otakar, then three-and-a-half years old, succumbed to smallpox. Within a short period Dvorak had lost all three of his children. After the death of the first child he wrote the piano version of what would become one of his most celebrated works: Stabat mater. With the loss of another two children Dvorak returned once more to the text of the mediaeval Latin sequence describing the Virgin Mary’s suffering as she witnesses the Crucifixion of her Son; this was now the definitive orchestral version. The oratorio Stabat mater contributed significantly to the composer’s international celebrity in years to come.
In order to try to forget the recent tragic events as quickly as possible and probably also because of their neighbours, whose piano playing disturbed the composer in his work, the Dvoraks moved from Na Rybnicku street to a new address, Zitna 10 (today 14), which became their permanent home. The following three years (c. 1878 – 1880) are known as Dvorak’s Slavic period, characterised by a strong leaning towards the roots of Slav folk music and, at the same time, representing some of the composer’s most productive years. Music flavoured with Slavic colour and nuances was sought-after both in the Czech environment (given the patriotic fervour of the time), and beyond the country’s borders (for its attractive “exoticism”).
Dvorak produced a large number of works during a relatively short space of time, among them, further Moravian Duets, the Serenade for Wind Instruments in D minor, the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, a series of piano pieces, String Quartet No. 10, “Slavonic”, Czech Suite, Gypsy Songs (Gypsy Melodies), and also the first series of the famous Slavonic Dances. These were followed by Symphony No. 6 in D major, which conductor Vaclav Talich later described as a work “pulsating with the blood of the Czech Lands”.
At the beginning of the 1880s Dvorak’s music found its way to a country traditionally host to all manner of musical geniuses and one of the most important music centres – England. From the time of Handel, the country had cultivated a strong tradition in the performance of oratorios and cantatas and, once discerning London audiences had been introduced to the Stabat mater, the die was cast.
Dvorak was invited to London, a visit which proved crucial for his entire subsequent career. Interest in his music continued to grow, English music institutions and festivals began to commission specific works, and hence the majority of the composer’s journeys across the Channel involved the premiere performance of a new work. This particularly concerned Symphony No. 7, written for London, the oratorio Saint Ludmila commissioned for the festival in Leeds, and the cantata The Spectre’s Bride and Requiem for the Birmingham festival. Dvorak travelled to the British Isles a total of nine times and each visit was a triumph both for the composer and for Czech music. His connections with England culminated in the conferral of an honorary degree from Cambridge University in June 1891.
Together with the recognition he was enjoying in European music circles (in addition to England, Dvorak’s works were also being performed in Vienna, Budapest, Leipzig, Berlin, and elsewhere), things were going extremely well in his private life as well. During the years 1878-1888 Dvorak and his wife had a succession of six healthy children who all survived into adulthood. Soon after the birth of their daughter Anna, the whole family was invited by Josefina Kounicova to visit her chateau in Vysoka near Pribram (Vysoka u Pribrami) which she had received as a wedding gift from her husband, Count Vaclav Kounic. Dvorak was so enchanted by Vysoka that he decided to purchase from his brother-in-law an old farm building with a garden at the other end of the village; this he had reconstructed into a house with several floors, after his death known as “Villa Rusalka”. For the next twenty years the family spent their summers here and Dvorak wrote a large number of his works in Vysoka, many of which are among his most famous compositions.
Apart from the compositions written for England, a number of works appeared between the individual tours, such as a further series of Slavonic Dances, Piano Quintet in A major, the Mass in D major “The Luzany Mass”, and also The Jacobin which, after Rusalka, became Dvorak’s most performed opera. In 1888 Prague was visited on two occasions by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. On the first occasion he conducted concerts of his own works hosted by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda; he came over for a second time to present the European premiere of his new opera, Eugene Onegin. During his visits he also met up with Dvorak and invited him to perform in Russia, a tour to Moscow and St Petersburg which was organised for March of 1890. The concerts were very well received by the public, however, the critics surprisingly claimed that Dvorak lacked invention.
In 1891 Dvorak received an offer which would have fundamental consequences for his life and work: an invitation to the United States of America. The enterprising president of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, Jeanette Thurber, decided to raise the prestige of the school by offering the post of director to a leading figure in European music circles. The Czech maestro was chosen for this role. After much hesitation the composer finally signed a contract which obliged him to head the music institution and teach composition, and this for a salary that was thirty times higher than the amount the Prague Conservatoire was able to offer.
At the beginning of the school year 1892/93 Dvorak sailed across the ocean to America where, apart from one break, he spent two and a half years. As soon as he arrived he assumed his obligations and began acquainting himself with his new, unfamiliar environment. It wasn’t long before he brought all his feelings and impressions together in his legendary work: in January 1893 he started sketches for his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, subtitled “From the New World”. In the summer Dvorak and his family travelled for their holidays to the village of Spillville in the state of Iowa, where descendants of Czech emigrants live to this day. Here the composer felt quite at home. In a joyful frame of mind, within just a few days, he penned the sun-filled String Quartet No. 12 in F major, entitled “American”, which was immediately followed by String Quintet No. 3 in E flat major, works of unusual melodic invention. After his return to New York, he continued his teaching and also witnessed the triumphant premiere of the New World Symphony, which took place in Carnegie Hall on 16 December 1893. The composer felt that he needed to spend the following summer holidays in his homeland, in Vysoka. During this summer intermezzo he wrote a cycle of eight Humoresques for the piano. The seventh, in G flat major, immediately travelled the world in countless arrangements – some better than others – and became one of the most famous classical music hits. During the school year 1893/94 Dvorak created his most intimate work, Biblical Songs, written to the text of David’s Book of Psalms. In the last year of his stay in the United States the composer produced his celebrated Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, which he completed after his return to Bohemia.
Upon his return from the United States, Dvorak resumed his teaching at the Prague Conservatoire, passing on his experience to future leading Czech composers Oskar Nedbal, Vitezslav Novak and Josef Suk, who married Dvorak’s oldest daughter Otilie a few years later. 1896 was an important year for Czech culture with the institution of a new orchestra which in subsequent years would become the most famous orchestra in the country: the Czech Philharmonic. As the most prominent living Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak was asked to conduct a programme of his own works at the orchestra’s inaugural concert.
In the latter part of his career Dvorak’s music betrayed a shift towards an expression of profound folk wisdom, towards the realm of myths and fairy tales. He first wrote four symphonic poems inspired by texts from the collection Bouquet by Karel Jaromir Erben, beginning with The Water Goblin, then The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel and finally The Wild Dove. If we discount his vocal works, this collection is one of the composer’s few contributions to the programme music genre. Dvorak’s musical legacy concluded with three stage works. The first is the comic opera (arguably the composer’s most original) The Devil and Kate. After this came the composer’s most frequently performed opera, the lyrical Rusalka, whose premiere in 1901 was a pure triumph and assured him his rightful place in the opera repertoire as well (until now he had been regarded chiefly as an author of symphonic and chamber music). The very last work Dvorak wrote is the opera Armida, set in the exotic environment of the Orient. The premiere in March 1904 did not go as the composer would have wished, mostly due to shoddy preparation work on the part of the company. Dvorak’s frustration at the careless staging of the opera was compounded by health problems. With the onset of acute kidney pain he was forced to leave the theatre during the performance.
The renal colic Dvorak was suffering was complicated by a chill and then influenza, and his doctor prescribed bed rest. In the morning of 1 May he felt a little better, well enough to want to join his family for Sunday lunch. After having some soup, however, he felt ill and soon lost consciousness. The doctor was summoned immediately, but could only confirm that the composer had died; a stroke was cited as the official cause of death. A modern medical diagnosis, however, would probably have shown the cause of death to be pulmonary embolism, which the patient would have suffered after a prolonged period of bed rest.
History has shown us numerous examples where the circumstances surrounding the final days of major figures assumed monumental, almost theatrical proportions, and where words uttered on their deathbeds might conceivably have been carved in stone (Socrates and Beethoven, among others). In the case of Antonin Dvorak, the exact opposite is true. He died as he had lived, without pathos and ostentation. His last words, “I feel a bit dizzy, I think I’ll go and lie down”, certainly won’t rank among the world’s immortal quotations. But Dvorak’s music will accompany humanity to its final days.