Dvorak, Antonin

1841-1904

Born at Muhlhausen, Bohemia, and was one of the most celebrated of modern musical geniuses. His father was a butcher and intended his son to follow the same business, but his ambition to be a musician had been fired by the bands of strolling musicians who visited the village, so he persuaded the school-master to instruct him in the rudiments of music. This man, Josef Spitz, instructed him on the violin and also taught him singing. When he was twelve, he was sent to Zlonitz to an uncle. Here he attended school and had wider opportunities for study. When he was sixteen he went to Prague and studied there at the organ school for three years as a pupil of Pitzsch. His fathers allowance to him stopped about this time and he supported himself by playing the violin in various cafes. He was also composing, in his spare time, but of his compositions, of this period of his life, few exist. He had no money to buy scores and had no piano, so his work along this line was done with difficulty. When a Bohemian Theatre was opened in Prague, in 1862, the band with which Dvorak played was chosen to provide the music. Later, when the institution was established on a firmer basis as the National Theatre, he with others was chosen to play in the orchestra. Soon he secured the state aid of Austria and gained the friendship of Herbeck, Hanslick and Brahms. In Karl Bendl, a native of Prague, Dvorak found a warm friend and instructor. Bendl was conductor of the Choral Society, and through him Dvorak had a chance to become acquainted with the musical masterpieces. In 1862 he wrote a quintet for strings and in 1865 had finished two symphonies, written a grand opera and many songs. In 1873 he was appointed organist of St. Adelbert's Church, Prague, and that year was married. He was then thirty-two. Shortly afterward he attracted the attention of the public as a composer with a patriotic hymn or cantata. He was anxious to write an opera for the new   National Theatre and produced Konig und Kohler (The King and the Collier). It was not a success, was withdrawn, destroyed and entirely rewritten in 1875 and in this form was a success. The following year rumors of his talents and of his small resources had reached Vienna and he was granted a pension of fifty pounds per year from the Cultusministenum. This was increased the next year, and through it the composer met Brahms, who in 1877 was appointed on a commission, formed for the examination of the compositions of the recipients of the grant. A collection of duets came under Brahms' notice and he immediately perceived the talents of young Dvorak. The latter receivedshortly after, a commission to write a series of Slavic dances for the piano, and they had almost as great a success as the  Hungarian dances of Brahms and immediately became popular in all parts of Germany. Dvorak was recognized from this time as a composer to be reckoned with and he became prominent  and justly celebrated. Public attention was directed to his work in 1883, when the London Musical Society gave his setting of the Stabat Mater, composed in 1876 but not published until 1881. It was so well received that its composer was invited to conduct a performance of the work at Albert Hall, London, in 1884. This was his first appearance in England. The following year he conducted his Hucitska overture, which had been written for an opera at the new Bohemian Theatre in Prague. The cantata, The Spectre's Bride, written for the Birmingham Festival of 1885, was a still more marked success. This and an overture, on the subject of St. Ludmilla, written for the Leeds Festival in 1886, were conducted by the composer himself. The latter was not the success he had hoped for and is said to have led him to go to New York in 1892 as head of the National Conservatory of Music. In 1891 he again visited London and received the honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Cambridge University. During his sojourn in America, Dvorak gave further evidences of his belief in nationalism in music. In 1893 his symphony, From the New World, was performed for the first time. It is still very popular. He went direct to the music of the southern plantations and drew from them themes for this composition that attracted the attention of the entire musical world. Other contributions to our national music are his American string quartet and his American Flag cantata. He held the post in New York until 1895, when he returned to Prague, where he was shortly afterward appointed head of the Conservatory. After his return to his own country he forsook the field of symphony and cantata and devoted himself almost wholly to opera. Rusalka, the Water Nixie, was produced at the National Theatre in 1900, and won instant success, also Der Teufel und die Kathe. He had planned another opera, Armida, when he was stricken with apoplexy and died. Of the eight operas he wrote, only Der Bauer ein Schelm (The Peasant a Rogue), has been heard outside of Prague and that only at Dresden and Hamburg. Dvorak was influenced to a greater  or lesser degree by  the music of his own country, which he deeply loved. The elegiac Dumka and the Furiant, two Bohemian forms, he used in sonata and symphony, thereby greatly enriching the music of his time. His lighter mood is shown in his operas and songs, especially his gipsy songs. His national music as well as his operas won him but little fame or appreciation   outside of his own country. In spite of the fact that his ideals were national, Dvorak's gifts earned for him the regard of the entire musical world. He showed a wonderful mastery of the orchestra, and his music had always great individuality as well as great beauty.