Antonín Dvořák

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Antonín Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Leopold Dvořák () (September 8, 1841May 1, 1904) was a Czech composer of romantic music.



Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves near Prague where he spent most of his life. He studied music in Prague's Organ School at the end of the 1850s, and through the 1860s played viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra, which was from 1866 conducted by Bedřich Smetana. The need to supplement his income by teaching left Dvorák with limited free time, and in 1871 he gave up the orchestra in order to compose. He fell in love with one of his pupils and wrote a song cycle, Cypress Trees, expressing his anguish at her marriage to another man. However, he soon overcame his despondency and in 1873 married her sister, Anna Cermakova.

From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory in New York City. The Conservatory was founded by a wealthy socialite, Jeannette Thurber, who wanted a well-known composer as director in order to lend prestige to her institution. She wrote to Dvořák, asking him to accept the position, and he agreed, providing that she were willing to meet his conditions: that talented Native American and African-American students, who could not afford the tuition, must be admitted for free—an early example of affirmative action. She agreed to his conditions, and he sailed to America.

It was during this time as director of the Conservatory that Dvořák formed a friendship with Harry Burleigh, who became an important African-American composer. Dvořák taught Burleigh composition, and in return, Burleigh spent hours on end singing traditional American Spirituals to Dvořák. Burleigh went on to compose settings of these Spirituals which compare favorably with European classical composition.

In the winter and spring of 1893, while in New York, he wrote his most popular work, the Symphony No.9 "From the New World". Following an invitation from his family, he spent the summer of 1893 in the Czech speaking community of Spillville, Iowa. While there he composed two of his most famous chamber works, the Quartet in F ("The American"), and the String Quintet in E flat.

Also while in the United States he heard a performance of a cello concerto by the composer Victor Herbert. He was so excited by the possibilities of the cello and orchestra combination displayed in this concerto that he wrote a cello concerto of his own, the Cello Concerto in B minor (1895). Since then the concerto, considered one of the greatest of the genre, has grown in popularity and frequently performed today. He also left an unfinished work, the Cello Concerto in A major (1865), which was completed and orchestrated by the German composer Günter Raphael between 1925 and 1929.

Dvořák was a colorful personality. In addition to music, there were two particular passions in his life: locomotive engines, and the breeding of pigeons.

He eventually returned to Prague where he was director of the conservatory from 1901 until his death in 1904. At the end of his life Dvorak was in serious financial straits, as he had sold his many compositions for so little he had hardly nothing to live on. He is interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague.

Musical style and influence

Dvořák's works are in a variety of forms: his nine symphonies stick to classical models which Ludwig van Beethoven would have recognised and are comparable to Johannes Brahms, but he also worked in the newly developed symphonic poem form and the influence of Richard Wagner is apparent in some works. Many of his works also show the influence of Czech folk music, both in terms of rhythms and melodic shapes; perhaps the best known examples are the two sets of Slavonic Dances. As well as his already-mentioned works, Dvořák wrote operas (the best known of which is Rusalka), chamber music (including a number of string quartets, the American among them) and piano music.

Dvořák's works were catalogued by Jarmil Burghauser in Antonin Dvořák. Thematic Catalogue. Bibliography. Survey of Life and Work (Export Artia Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1960). In this catalogue, for example, the New World Symphony (Opus 95) is B178. [1]

Dvořák's Symphonies

During Dvořák’s life only 5 symphonies were widely known. His publisher, Simrock, wasn’t eager to publish big symphonic works, for they were hard to sell. The first being published was the 6th, since his international star was rising and well known conductors like Hans Richter, whom it was dedicated to, were asking for symphonic works and willing to advocate them. After Dvořák’s death, research led to four more symphonies, of which the first had even been lost to the composer himself. This led to an unclear situation in which the "New World" symphony has alternately been called the 5th, 8th and 9th. In this article they are numbered according to the order in which they were written, which is the normal numbering system used today.

Unlike many other composers who shied away from the symphony until their mature years (notably his mentor Johannes Brahms), Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor when he was only 24 years of age. Subtitled The Bells of Zlonice after a village in Dvořák's native Bohemia, it is clearly the work of an inexperienced composer, yet shows a lot of promise. The scherzo is considered to be the strongest movement, but the others are not uninteresting. There are many formal similarities with the 5th Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, yet harmonically and in his instrumentation he is more a romantic composer, following Franz Schubert.

Not very remarkable, but not of low quality either, is Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, still looking up to Beethoven. But Symphony No. 3 in E flat major clearly shows the sudden and profound impact of Dvořák's recent acquaintance with the music of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.

The influence of Wagner was not lasting, however; it can hardly be heard anymore in Symphony No. 4 in D minor. This last of Dvořák's early symphonies is also widely regarded as the best. Again the scherzo is the highlight, but already Dvořák shows his absolute mastery of all formal aspects.

Dvořák's middle symphonies, Symphony No. 5 in F major (published as No. 3) and Symphony No. 6 in D major (published as No. 1), are happy, pastoral works. They are not as famous as their later cousins, though many consider them just as good. The Fifth is the more pastoral work, although there is a dark slow movement which borrows (or, rather, steals) the first four notes of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto for the main theme. The Sixth shows a very strong resemblance to the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms, particularly the outer movements.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor of 1885 is the most Romantic symphony by the composer, and often reckoned to be his greatest, exhibiting more formal tautness and much greater intensity than its more famous cousin, the 9th. The 7th could hardly be a starker contrast to Symphony No. 8 in G major (published as No. 4), a work which Karl Schumann (in booklet notes to a recording of all the symphonies by Rafael Kubelik) compares to Gustav Mahler. Together with his last symphony, these two are regarded as the peak of Dvořák's symphonic writing and among the finest symphonies of the 19th century.

By far the most popular, however, is Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E minor (published as No. 5), better known under its subtitle, From the New World. This was written between January and May 1893, while he was in New York. At the time of its composition, Dvořák claimed that he used elements from American music such as Spirituals and Native American music in this work, but he later denied this. The first movement has a solo flute passage very reminiscent of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and one of his students later reported that the second movement depicted, programmatically, the sobbing of Hiawatha. The second movement was so reminiscent of a negro spiritual that lyrics were written for it and it became Goin' Home. Dvořák was interested in indigenous American music, but in an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, he wrote "[In the 9th symphony] I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music." It is generally accepted that the work has more in common with the folk music of Dvořák's native Bohemia than with American music.

Neil Armstrong took this symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing mission, in 1969.

Two of the most highly regarded recordings of these symphonies are the cycles by Rafael Kubelik and Libor Pešek.

See also

Further reading

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