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Learn about the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, and his works & life.

Antonin Dvořák: Overview 

  • Born: 1841 - Muhlhausen, Bohemia
  • Died: 1904 - Prague, Czechoslovakia
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, songs, choral

Composer Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvořák was a Czech composer, born in 1841, who was an active propagator of national pride through his works. The pieces that he wrote strongly reflected the heritage he had lived in, and had huge patriotic vibes. This mindset was possibly what made him travel to the United States of America and start utilizing Native American and African American tunes for his music. By the time of his death in the year 1904, he was particularly revered for the ability to convert folk tales into Romantic music. 

Antonin Dvořák: The Bohemian Maverick

Dvořák was the first of nine children, from the village of Nelahozeves in the Czech Republic. At 12, he went to live with his relatives at Zlonice to learn piano and organ, among other instruments. It was during this time that he composed his first polkas and in 1857, was enrolled in the Institute for Church Music in Prague. The 1860s were hard times for the musician, but despite that, by 1864, he had already written a couple of symphonies, in addition to an opera and many songs. The variations in his pieces reflect that he was deeply influenced by a number of maestros such as Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, and Liszt. 

It was among his many students that Dvořák also taught the sisters Josefina and Anna Čermáková, where he fell in love with the former. This, however, didn’t bear any fruit as Josefina did not reciprocate the composer’s feelings, leaving him heartbroken. This led him to write Cypresses in 1865, which was a collection of songs, subsequently written in the text by Gustav Pfleger-Moravský. Dvořák, in 1873, eventually married the younger sister, Anna, who was herself a pianist. The couple saw the birth of their first healthy child in 1878, after a string of infant deaths.

The Austrian government, citing Dvořák’s musical skills, granted him a state grant in 1875, which also acquainted him with Johannes Brahms, another brilliant and well-known composer. Brahms imparted his knowledge of musical technicalities to the younger Dvořák while introducing the latter to famous publisher Fritz Simrock. With such a backing, the talented Dvořák came into prominence with works like Moravian Duets (1876) and the Slavonic Dances (1878). Other works of this period were Stabat Mater in 1877 and Te Deum in 1892. 

Although Dvořák produced classy symphonies, his Symphony No. 7 in D Minor (1885) deserves special mention due to its perfect balance of structure and music. The various overtures that he wrote include Othello (1892), Nature’s Realm (1891), Carnival (1891), and My Home (1881-1882). The Serenade for Strings of the year 1875 and the Scherzo capriccioso, written in 1883, were further gems created by the virtuoso. 

Dvořák’s association with Pyotr Tchaikovsky led to the former being invited to Moscow for musical conduction at Moscow and St. Petersburg in the year 1890. Following this, in 1892, at the just established National Conservatory of Music, in the city of New York, Dvořák assumed the role of director. As previously mentioned, he affected American music to a large extent through his works such as the cantata The American Flag (1892), American String Quartet (1893) and Symphony No. 8, performed for the Chicago World's Fair for Bohemian Day celebrations. 

The New World Symphony or Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, composed in 1893 by Dvořák, is universally accepted as the best piece he had ever written. His concerti are equally famous, but the 1895’s Cello Concerto in B Minor is one of his finest contributions to music. The composer wrote a total of 10 operas between 1870 and 1903. Among these, Rusalka, produced in 1900, is popular for the aria, “O silver moon”. Some of his other popular works are Opus 48 (1878), Opus 51 (1879), the Gypsy Songs (1880), the Bagatelles (1878) The Piano Quintet in A Major (1887), the string quartets 105 and 106 (1895), Opus 90 (1891) and Symphonic Variations (1877). 

Antonin Dvořák has been accused by many critics to be extremely repetitive in his overall body of work. This has been followed by allegations that he was prone to periods of disinterest, and of weakness in the construction of his large-scale works. These are, however, much debated in the artistic fraternity, and even if they are true in some respects, the splendid musical renditions of his ideas combined with an unmatched simplicity of his melodies, render such allegations irrelevant. Dvořák belonged and still belongs in the pantheon of the greatest compositional geniuses of all time. 


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