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Antonin Dvorak

born: 1841-09-08
died: 1904-05-01
birthplace: Nelahozeves u Kralup
diedplace: Praha

the most famous Czech composer ever, and one of the world's best composers of the romantic period (though formally, his compositions are based on classical style). He was born in the family of butcher and inn keeper as the first of nine children. He got his basic musical education from the teacher Josef Spitz in Nelahozeves. Little Antonin soon loved to play violin to his father's inn guests. After finishing the basic school education, he started to help his father with his trade. They moved to the near town Zlonice. Here Dvorak met the composer and excellent musician Antonin Liehmann who recognized boy's great talent and persuaded father to allow young Dvorak serious musical studies. In 1857-1859 Dvorak studied the Organists School in Prague. His father could not afford full length conservatory studies, so the Organists School was chosen because of just two years lenght and, despite poor equipmnet, quite a good teaching staff. At the same time Dvorak played violin with Cecilian Association where he got an overview of the 19th century music.

After finishing the studies he stayed in Prague but his father could not support him any more. So Dvorak lived with his relatives, taught music and played chamber music in the townsmen houses. After unsuccessful application for the position of organist at St. Henry's Church, he accepted the position of violinist in the band of Karel Komzak. It was a small orchestra that played mostly on promenade concerts and dancing parties. Incidentally, after opening the Interim Theatre in Prague in 1862, the whole band was engaged as the core of the theatre orchestra. This gave Dvorak the opportunity to play viola parts in the operas of Verdi, Donizetti and others, often under conduction of Bedrich Smetana. At about that time he became friends with Karel Bendl from whom he borrowed scores of famous composers to study (in his financial situation he could not afford to buy musical sheets by himself). He also started to write his own music but he destroyed most of it because he was not satisfied with it. The first composition to which he gave the Opus Number was the String Quintet in a Minor written in 1861. Soon he wrote his first symphony and more chamber music, though living in very poor conditions, sharing one room with several other people. At that time he fell in love with Josefina Cermakova, daughter of the goldsmith in whose family he taught music. The love was unreturned, Josefina married the Earl Vaclav Kounic. That relation inspired Dvorak to write the cycle of love songs Cypress. Later he returned to the themes of these songs several times.

Influenced by the operas of Bedrich Smetana, played in the Interim Theatre, Dvorak tried to write his own operas (Alfred, King and a Coalman). The other one he offered to the Interim Theatre but it was returned to him as unplayable. He completely rewrote it and on the second attempt he succeeded. This stimulated him to even increase his composition activities. He got more success with his hymn Heirs of White Mountain (1873). Dvorak came into the public musical consciousness as a promising young author. A big change happened in his personal life, too. After unsuccessful love to Josefina Cermakova, he married her younger sister Anna in November 1873. Her father did not approve the marriage and the young pair had financial troubles from the very beginning. Dvorak accepted the job of organist in the St. Vojtech Church. In 1875 he asked for the state pension granted every year to a young promising artist. one of the jury members was Johannes Brahms, already a famous composer at that time. On his advice, the pension was granted to Dvorak for five contiguous years. This allowed Dvorak to concentrate fully on composing. Also on Brahms' recommendation, the famous German publisher Fritz Simrock started tu publish Dvorak's sheets. At that time he wrote several compositions that became famous abroad like Moravian Duets or Serenade in E Major for String Orchestra.

In 1877 Dvorak family went through tragical events. Within several months time all of their three children died. Deeply cut Dvorak composed a spectacular oratorio Stabat Mater. Following years (called sometimes the Slavic Period) belong to the composer's most productive. Within a short time a lot of chamber and symphonic compositions were written, among others more Moravian Duets, three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Czech Suite, Gypsy Melodies and first set of Slavonic Dances (written on the order of the publisher Simrock). In 1884 he was invited to London to conduct his Stabat Mater. The big success there was a key point for the rest of Dvorak's career. British institutions and musical festivals ordered more and more compositions directly from him. Dvorak visited England nine times, mostly to introduce his new compositions. Among others, he wrote his Symphonies No. 7 and 8 as well as his famous Requiem for England. In 1891 Dvorak received honorary doctorate at the University of Cambridge. Dvorak had his happy time in personal life, too. In 1878-1888 three daughters were born, all of them in good health. Thanks to the invitation of his former love and current sister-in-law, he visited the village Vysoka u Pribrami (Josefina had a small castle there) and he became so fond of the place that he bought a house there; they spent every summer there for the next 20 years.

In 1888 Dvorak met P.I.Tchaikovsky in Prague. Tchaikovsky invited him for a tour to Russia. It was accomplished the following year. Dvorak introduced his works in Moscow and Petersburg with excited reaction of the audience and quite reserved attitude of the reviewers who pointed out lack of invention (!).
In 1890 Dvorak got a proposal of director's position of the National COnservatory in New York. After long hesitation, Dvorak finally accepted the proposal and left to America for two and a half year. In 1893 he composed there his fundamental work, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World", extatically accepted by the American audience (first release on December 16th, 1893 at Carnegie Hall). He spent his summer holidays in Spilwille, Iowa among descendants of the Czech immigrants. He felt as home there and composed String Quartet No.12 in F Major and String Quintet No. 3 in E Flat Major, both within a few days. Next summer holidays Dvorak could not stand it and spent a few weeks back home in his summer house in Vysoka. He wrote here a cycle of 8 Piano Humoresques; the 7th of them became one of the world's most played compositions ever.

After the return from the USA in 1895 Dvorak taught at Prague Conservatory. Among his students were e.g. Oskar Nedbal, Vitezslav Novak and Josef Suk (who married Dvorak's oldest daughter Otilia). In 1896 a new orchestra came into existence: Czech Philharmony. Dvorak was asked to conduct the opening concert consisting of his own works.
In the end of his life, Dvorak wrote compositions inspired by myths and fairy tales (symphonic poems, operas). In 1904 Dvorak suffered from kidney attack which made him to leave the opening of his last opera Armida (quite badly rehearsed anyway). After complication with influenza, he unexpectedly died.

Dvorak contributed significantly to the treasury of the world classical music by his melodical invention, rhytmical ingenuity, sence of sound colourfulness, together with deep-seated folk tradition. His symphonic and chamber works often contain several musical themes, each of them big enough for any other composer to build the whole composition. Dvorak, on the ohter hand, just introduces the theme, plays a little with it and leaves it to introduce another one, equally interesting while all the musical structure sounds fluent and natural as any single tone is exactly where it has to be. In terms of popular music, Dvorak was one of the biggest hitmakers ever. Many of his melodies are used as basic themes in movie tracks, musical programs signatures etc. Most of the people know the melodies not knowing who the original author is.

Work: (selected)
  • Symphonies (among others 9 symfonies)
    • No. 9 in E Minor op.95 "From the New World" , 1893
  • Concertant compositions
    • Concerto in A Major for cello and piano , 1865
    • Piano concerto in G Minor, op. 33 , 1876
    • Violin concerto in A Minor, op. 53 , 1879
    • Concerto in B Flat Minor for violoncello and orchestra, op. 104 , 1895
  • More orchestral compositions - e.g.
    • Slavonic Rhapsodies, op. 45 (in D Major, G Minor, A Flat Major), 1878
    • Czech Suite, op. 39 , 1879
    • Symphonic poems after K.J.Erben (Waterman, Midday Witch, Golden Spinning Wheel, Little Pigeon), 1896
    • Slavonic Dances - 1st row, op. 46 , 1878
    • Slavonic Dances - 2nd row, op. 72 , 1887
    • more symphonic poems, suites, ouvertures etc.
  • Piano compositions
    • Silhouets, op. 8 , 1879
    • Suite in A Major, op. 98 , 1894
    • Humoresques, op. 101 (the best known No.7 in G Flat Major)
    • Slavonic Dances, op. 46 - 1st row (later adapted for the orchestra), 1878
    • Slavonic Dances - 2nd row (later adapted for the orchestra), 1886
  • Chamber music
    • Violin Quartet in E Flat Major „Slavonic“, op. 51 , 1879
    • String quartet in F Major„American“, op. 96 , 1893
    • more chamber compositions, mostly string and piano
  • Songs and choruses
    • Moravian Duets, op. 20 (soprano, tenor + piano), 1875
    • Moravian Duets, op. 29, 32 (soprano, alto + piano), 1876
    • Moravian Duets, op. 38 (soprano, alto + piano) , 1877
    • Bunch of Czech traditional songs, op. 41 , 1877
    • Five choruses on Lithuanian traditional lyrics, op. 27 , 1878
    • Gypsy Melodies, op. 55 , 1881
    • Biblical songs, op. 99 , 1894
  • Operas - among others:
    • Jakobin, op. 84 , 1888
    • Cert a Kaca, op. 112 (Devil and Katie) , 1899
    • Rusalka, op. 114 , 1900
  • Oratorios, cantatas, masses
    • Stabat mater, op. 58 , 1877
    • Svatebni kosile, op. 69 (Wedding Shirt) , 1884
    • Mass in D Major, op. 86 (organ accompany, later adapted for orchestra), 1884
    • Requiem, op. 89 , 1890
    • Te Deum, op. 103 , 1892


Mala encyklopedie hudby (book by dr. Jar. Smolka; &kolektiv, Supraphon 1983)
Kniha o hudbe/Book of Music (V.Holzknecht a kol., Orbis 1964)


Slavonic Dance No.1 in C Major Presto (Furiant) op. 46, 4 handed piano version (1878, Peter Toperczer, Marian Lapsansky - piano, GZ 1994)
Slavonic Dance No.6 in D Major Allegretto Scherzando (Sousedska) op. 46, orchestral version (1878, Czech Radio symphonic orchestra in Prague, cond. Vladimir Valek)
Slavonic Dance No.7 in C Minor Allegro Assai (Skocna) op. 46, orchestral version (1878, Czech Radio symphonic orchestra in Prague, cond. Vladimir Valek)
Slavonic Dance No.8 in G Minor Presto (Furiant) op. 46, 4 handed piano version (1878, Peter Toperczer, Marian Lapsansky - piano, GZ 1994)
When My Old Mother (1880-Gypsy Melodies, op. 55, rec. Roman Janal barytone, Karel Kosarek piano, Supraphon 2005)
String Tuned (1880-Gypsy Melodies, op. 55, rec. Roman Janal barytone, Karel Kosarek piano, Supraphon 2005)
Slavonic Dance No.10 in E Minor Allegretto Grazioso (Mazur) op. 72, 4 handed piano version (1886, Peter Toperczer, Maraán Lapsansky - piano, GZ 1994)
Slavonic Dance No.15 in C Major Allegro Vivace (Kolo) op. 72,4 handed piano version (1886, Peter Toperczer, Maraán Lapsansky - piano, GZ 1994)
Mass in D Major "Lusatian" op. 86 (1887, Part 2-Gloria, rec. Jan Hora - organ, Bambini di Praga - children voices, Kuhn Mixer Choir - men\'s Chorus, Multisonic 1991)
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World" (1893, Part 1: Adagio - Allegro molto, rec. Czech Radio Orchestra, cond. Vladimir Valek, Clarion 2005)
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World" (1893, Part 2: Largo, rec. Czech Radio Orchestra, cond. Vladimir Valek, Clarion 2005)
Humoresque No.7 in G Flat Major, op. 101 (1894, rec. Kveta Novotna piano, CD Best of Classic, OMV 1999))

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Last update 2012-07-04