Just in time for Fall! Our September Music History 101 Blog is ready for your reading pleasure. We’re honoring the September birthday of the great Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák!
One of the reasons I chose to study abroad in the Czech Republic back in 2010 was because of its rich history in music and art. So when my boss, Linda Wehrli, asked me to research this composer for the September Music History 101 Blog, I was excited to learn more!
For those that don’t know, Dvořák was considered by many throughout the Western world to be the greatest of all living composers. And his popularity has never waned; his music still speaks to us today and occupies a conspicuous position in performance repertoire. In fact, The Athena Foundation for the Arts October 8, 2023 concert featuring the Guideri Walz Durkovic Trio will open with Dvořák’s famous Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Opus 90, otherwise known as the “Dumky”. For concert details, visit their program and blog interview.
Born on September 8,1841 in a small village north of Prague, Antonin Leopold Dvořák was the eldest of 14 children. His father was a professional zither player, an innkeeper and a butcher. Folk music accompanied every family occasion, and young Antonin soon joined his father in the local band – and served as an apprentice butcher.
The youthful Dvořák studied organ, violin, piano and – less successfully – the German language. He played viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theatre Orchestra, performing in restaurants and at balls. In 1871, he resigned from the orchestra to concentrate on composing, scraping a living by teaching the piano.
In 1873, Dvořák married his wife Anna Čermáková, after courting and being turned down by her sister, Josefina. Dvořák and his wife had nine children in total – six survived infancy. After his marriage, he left the orchestra to be a church organist which guaranteed better income, greater social status and more time to compose.
Dvořák’s first composing efforts received no critical reception or public performance. The self-critical composer even burned some of his early works. But his music did begin to attract the interest of the critic Eduard Hanslick and the composer Johannes Brahms, who gave Dvořák’s career a boost.
In 1877, on Brahms’ recommendation, the publisher Simrock commissioned Dvořák to write some Slavonic Dances for piano duet. Aimed at the lucrative domestic market, the sheet music for the eight dances sold out in one day. When Dvořák’s publisher Simrock failed to send him an advance for his Symphony No.7, the composer complained that he had endured a bad potato harvest and needed some money upfront. Simrock then refused to print Dvořák’s correct first name on the cover, insisting on Germanising it.
Away from music, Dvořák was a committed trainspotter, spending hours at the Franz Josef railway station in Prague. It’s said he knew the timetable by heart. And when teaching, he would always ask his pupils to describe in detail any train journeys that they had recently made.
It was the lure of an amazing fee that persuaded Dvořák to venture to New York. For a little teaching and conducting, with four month’s vacation, he was promised the unimaginable salary of $15,000 – 25 times what he was paid in Prague, and worth about £500,000 in today’s terms. While there, he developed a new passion for steam ships – and pigeons. A truly eccentric composer.
During his time in America, Dvořák produced three of his most famous works – the String Quartet No.12, known as the ‘American’, the Cello Concerto in B minor, and the ‘New World’ Symphony. When he premiered the symphony, critics disagreed over whether it was an all-American symphony or just more of Dvořák’s usual Bohemian fare.
While in the US, Dvořák, appeared to spend a lot of time longing for home, rarely going out, and even spent his summer with a Czech community in Iowa. In 1895, problems came to a head over his salary, and he decided to return to Bohemia. The Dvořáks left New York before the end of the spring term with no intention of returning.
Dvořák wrote his opera Rusalka at the age of 60 when he had only three years left to live. The premiere took place in Prague’s National Theatre where Dvořák himself had once played as a musician in the house band. Its stand-out moment is the stunning Song to the Moon aria.
Dvořák died aged 62 from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness. He left behind many unfinished works. In 1943, an American Liberty ship of the U.S. Navy was named USNS Antonín Dvořák in his honor.
It is evident that Dvořák had an immense effect on music and continues to inspire classical musicians and composers today.
Can’t get enough of Dvořák’s music? Check out The Best of Dvořák YouTube video below, courtesy of Top Classical Music.
Music History 101 reviews selected musicians from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed the story, go ahead and share on your favorite social media! We’d be honored. Comments appreciated!
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