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Antonin Dvorak and his “New World Symphony”

Antonín Leopold Dvořák (September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904) was a Czech composer who followed the nationalist example of Bedřich Smetana and frequently employed features of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia. Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, then part of Bohemia in the Austrian Empire, now in Czech Republic, the eldest son of František Dvořák (1814–1894) and his wife Anna, née Zdeňková (1820–1882). František was an innkeeper, professional player of the zither, and a butcher. Anna was the daughter of Josef Zdeněk, the bailiff of Prince Lobkowitz. Anna and František had married on November 17, 1840. Anton was the first of fourteen children, eight of whom survived infancy and was baptized as a Roman Catholic in the church of St. Andrew in the village. Dvořák’s years in Nelahozeves nurtured the strong Christian faith and love for his Bohemian heritage that so strongly influenced his music.

In 1847, Dvořák entered primary school and learned to play violin from his teacher Joseph Spitz. František was pleased with his son’s gifts. At the age of 13, through the influence of his father, Dvořák was sent to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonín Zdenĕk, working as an apprentice butcher, studying the German language, and eventually graduating to become a journeyman on November 1, 1856. Dvořák took organ, piano and violin lessons from his German language teacher Anton Liehmann. Liehmann also taught the young boy music theory and was introduced to the composers of the time, for whom Dvořák gave much regard. Dvořák took further organ and music theory lessons with Franz Hanke at Česká Kamenice, who encouraged his musical talents even further. At the age of 16, through the urging of Liehmann and Zdenĕk, Dvořák was allowed by František to become a musician, on the condition that the young boy must build a career as an organist.

After leaving for Prague in September 1857, Dvořàk entered the city’s Organ School, studying organ with Josef Foerster, singing with Josef Zvonař and theory with František Blažek. He also took an additional language course to improve his German and worked as an “extra” in numerous bands and orchestras as a violist, including the orchestra of the St. Cecilia Society. Dvořák graduated from the Organ School in 1859. After unsuccessfully applying as an organist at St. Henry’s Church, he decided to support himself financially. During this time, Dvořák was a full-time musician. In 1858, he joined Karel Komzák’s orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague’s restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra. Dvořák played viola in this orchestra beginning 1862. In July 1863, Dvořák played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra.

At the time, Dvořák began composing his first two string quartets. In 1864, Dvořák agreed to share a rent of a flat located in Prague’s Žižkov district with five other people, which also included violinist Mořic Anger and Karel Čech, who later became a singer. In 1866, Maýr was replaced as chief conductor by Bedřich Smetana. The constant need to supplement his income pushed Dvorak to give piano lessons, and it was through these piano lessons that he met his wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Čermáková, for whom he apparently composed the song cycle “Cypress Trees”. However, she never returned his love and ended up marrying another man. However, in 1873 Dvořák married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna Čermáková (1854–1931). They had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy.

Dvořák’s composing career is first documented in the String Quintet in A Minor (1861) and in his First String Quartet (1862). In the early 1860s, he also made his first symphonic attempts, some of which he self-critically burned. In 1870, he composed his first opera, Alfred, over the course of five months from May to October, but it was quickly forgotten. The first press mention of Antonín Dvořák appeared in the Hudební listy journal in June 1871, and the first publicly performed composition was the song Vzpomínání (October 1871, musical evenings of L. Procházka). The performance of his cantata Hymnus in 1873 (conducted by his friend and supporter Karel Bendl) brought him first success; however, the opera King and Charcoal Burner was returned to Dvořák from the Provisional Theatre, saying it was unperformable. Dvořák later reworked it.

On leaving the National Theater Orchestra after his marriage, Dvořák secured the job of organist at St. Adalbert’s Church in Prague under Josef Förster, the father of the composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster. This provided him with financial security, higher social status, and enough free time to focus on composing. Dvořák composed his second string quintet in 1875, the same year that his first son was born. It was during this year that he produced a multitude of works, including his 5th Symphony, String Quintet No. 2, Piano Trio No. 1 and Serenade for Strings in E. In 1877, the year in which Dvořák wrote the Symphonic Variations and Ludevít Procházka conducted its premiere in Prague, the music critic Eduard Hanslick informed him that his music had attracted the attention of the famous Johannes Brahms, whom Dvořák admired greatly.

Brahms had a great influence over Dvořák’s work; clear examples are the latter’s Slavonic Dances, opp. 46 and 72 (1878 and 1886), on the model of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Brahms contacted the major European musical publisher Simrock, advising him to contract with Dvořák. Dvořák’s Stabat Mater (1880) was performed abroad, and after a successful performance in London in 1883, Dvořák was invited to visit England where he appeared to great acclaim in 1884. The conductor Hans Richter asked to compose his Symphony No. 6 for the Vienna Philharmonic intending to premiere it in December 1880. However, Adolf Čech conducted the premiere of the symphony at a concert of the Philharmonia society, predecessor of the Czech Philharmonic) on March 25, 1881, in Prague.

The Royal Philharmonic Society of London commissioned Dvořák to conduct concerts in London, and his performances were well received there. In response to the commission, Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 7 and conducted the premiere of the symphony at St. James’s Hall on April 22, 1885. In 1890, influenced by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dvořák also visited Russia, and conducted the orchestras in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. In 1891, Dvořák received an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge, and was offered a position at the Prague Conservatory as professor of composition and instrumentation. At first he refused the offer, but then later accepted; this change of mind was seemingly a result of a quarrel with his publisher, Simrock, over payment for his Eighth Symphony. His Requiem premiered later that year in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival.

From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, at a then-staggering $15,000 annual salary. The Conservatory had been founded by a wealthy and philanthropic socialite, Jeannette Thurber. Dvořák’s main goal in America was to discover “American Music” and engage in it, much as he had used Czech folk idioms within his music. Here Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, his pupil at the time and one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional American spirituals. In the winter and spring of 1893, Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No.9, “From the New World”, which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl. He spent the summer of 1893 with his family in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, to which some of his cousins had earlier immigrated. While there he composed the String Quartet in F (the “American”), and the String Quintet in E flat, as well as a Sonatina for violin and piano. He also conducted a performance of his Eighth Symphony at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that same year.

Over the course of three months in 1895, Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor. However, problems with Thurber about his salary, together with increasing recognition in Europe as he had been made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and a remarkable amount of homesickness made him decide to return to Bohemia. Dvořák, his wife and Otakar left the United States on April 27, 1895. During his final years, he concentrated on composing opera and chamber music. In October 1895, he resumed his professorship at the Prague Conservatory. Between 1895 to 1897, he completed his string quartets in A-flat major and G major, and also worked on the cycle of symphonic poems inspired by the collection Kytice by Karel Jaromír Erben. His chamber works directly influenced the establishment of the Czech Quartet (1891). In his last artistic period, from 1898 to 1904, he focused mainly on opera. He created some of his most valuable operatic works, such as The Devil and Kate (1898/99), Rusalka (1900) and Armida (1902/3).

In 1896 Dvorak visited London for the last time to hear the premiere of his Cello Concerto in B minor. In 1897 his daughter Otilie married his student, the composer Josef Suk. In the same year, Dvořák was appointed a member of the jury for the Viennese Artist’s Stipendium, and was later honored with a medal. In April 1901, he became a member of the Austro-Hungarian House of Lords, along with writer Jaroslav Vrchlický. He also succeeded Antonín Bennewitz as director of the Prague Conservatory from November 1901 until his death. His 60th birthday was celebrated as a national event, with concerts and a banquet organized in his honor. His final performance as conductor with the Czech Philharmonic took place on April 4, 1900. Due to illness, he missed the performances of his oratorio Saint Ludmila, the violin concerto with the solo part played by František Ondříček, and the New World Symphony at the ‘First Czech Music Festival’ held in April 1904 in Prague. Dvořák died from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness, at the age of 62, leaving many unfinished works.

The following works by Dvorak are included in my collection:

Carnival, Overture, op. 92 (1891).
(Cello) Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in bm, op. 104 (1895).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in gm, op. 33 (Piano Concerto, 1876).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in am, op. 53 (1883).
In Nature’s Realm, Overture, op. 91 (1891).
My Home, Overture, op. 62.
Nocturne for Strings in BM, op. 40, B. 47 (1883).
Othello, Overture, op. 93.
Romance in fm, op. 11 (for violin and orchestra).
Rondo in gm for Cello and Orchestra, op. 94 (1891).
Scherzo Capriccioso in Db M, op. 66 (1883).
Serenade for Strings in EM, op. 22 (1875).
Silent Woods for Cello and Orchestra, op. 68 (1884/1893),
Slavonic Dances, op. 46 (nos. 1-8).
Slavonic Dances, op. 82 (nos. 9-16).
Symphony No. 7 in dm, op. 70 (1885).
Symphony No. 8 in GM, op. 88 (1892).
Symphony No. 9 in em, op. 95, From the New World (1893).
Two Waltzes for Strings, op. 54 (1880), no. 1 in AM, no. 4 in dbm.
Vanda, Overture, op. 25.

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