Born in 1841 in Czechoslovakia into a family of butchers and innkeepers, it was presumed that Antonin Dvorak would be destined to follow the family trade. But his flair for music took him elsewhere, and when he was about 12, he began studying harmony, piano, and organ. Later he enrolled at the Institute for Church Music in Prague, where Dvorak did a two-year course.
Over the decades, Dvorak emerged as the first Bohemian composer to get worldwide recognition, particularly, for turning folk material into 19th-century Romantic music. He was one of several composers from the Romantic era, whose music follows generally along classical lines, but at the same time, his rhythms and melodies seem to embody the folk traditions of his native Czechoslovakia and surrounding regions. Dvorak also embedded his music with some traditional dances and typical rhythms or forms, such as Polkas, the Furiant and the Ukrainian Dumka. These found expression in his popular sets of Slavonic Dances and other works.
Symphony No. 9 (excerpt)
When he was about 34 years old, a grant by the Austrian government brought him into contact with Johannes Brahms, who was a great influence, and who also connected him to an influential publisher, whose firm’s publication of the Moravian Duets for soprano and contralto and the Slavonic Dances for piano duet got Dvorak global fame and acclaim.
By the age of 43, he made the first of ten visits to the UK, where the success of his choral works shone, wherein the pride of place was taken by the Stabat Mater and Te Deum. Later he was in Moscow, where two concerts were arranged for him by his friend, and noted composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. At 50, Dvorak became an honorary doctor of music at the University of Cambridge.
He also went to America where he was appointed director at the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and he sustained his folk music leanings exploring Black American and Native American music traditions. It was during this period that he produced some of his acclaimed works including the famous Cello Concerto in Bm, the American Quartet and his New World Symphony. The American influence is evidenced in Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (From the New World) which remains his best-known work, which is also characteristically Bohemian in its themes. However, Symphony No. 9 is in no way superior to Symphony No. 6 in D Major or Symphony No. 8 in G Major and is actually less characteristic of the composer than these other works.
Cello Concerto (excerpt)
Dvorak’s technical fluency and abundant melodic inspiration helped him to create a large and varied output. He composed in all the musical genres and left works that are regarded as classics in all of them, with the possible exception of opera. Dvořák’s mature symphonies are of high quality, though only Symphony No. 7 in D Minor is as satisfactory in its symphonic structure as it is musically.
Dvorak’s chamber music is recognized for its quality, especially the Piano Quintet in A Major. Also ranked highly are the string quartets, Opuses 51,105 and 106, the String Sextet, Opus 48, and the Dumky Trio, Opus 90. Some of the better known choral works are the Stabat Mater and Te Deum.
The musical legacy of Dvorak who died in 1904, is a source of national pride as it’s deeply infused with the spirit of his native Czech homeland. In fact, the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of Czech folk music manifest themselves both in his absolute music (symphonies, concerti, chamber music) and his programmatic works (tone poems and operas).
No wonder, his four great symphonic poems, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wood Dove, The Noonday Witch, and The Water Goblin, instil a great sense of national pride into the musical sphere of Czech culture.
Humoresque No. 7 in G-Flat Major (Arr. for Violin & Piano)
On completing the second movement of his dramatic Seventh Symphony, Dvorak remarked, “Today I have completed the second movement, Andante, of my new symphony, and I am so happy and contented in my work as I have always been, and God grant, may always be, for my slogan is and always shall be; God, Love and Country! And that alone can lead to a happy goal.”
Interestingly, Dvorak finds a place in one of the most iconic moments in world history, when man landed on the moon in 1969, because Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.