Composer. He is widely regarded as the greatest of Czech composers, and one of the founders of nationalism in his country's music. Dvorak's style is notable for its lyrical freshness, engaging rhythms, and an uncanny ability to absorb folk elements into a highly personal language. His fascination with folk music extended beyond his native Bohemia and his most popular work, the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World" (1893), was inspired by a sojourn in the United States. Dvorak was born in Nelahozeves, a village about 45 miles north of Prague. His father, a rural innkeeper and butcher, expected him to carry on the family business and he was apprenticed to a meat-cutter. A local schoolmaster, Antonin Liehmann, recognized young Dvorak's musical gifts and persuaded the boy's uncle to finance his studies at Prague's distinguished Organ School (1857 to 1859). When Dvorak turned 18 he was given a choice: return home to work at the inn or pursue music on his own. He chose the latter and settled in Prague for a period of "hard study...and very little eating" as an intinerant musician. The Provisional Theatre, forerunner of the Czech National Theatre, was founded in 1862 and for a decade Dvorak was employed as a violist in its orchestra; as such he was present at the birth of Czech opera with the premieres of Bedrich Smetana's "The Brandenburgers in Bohemia" (1866) and the classic "The Bartered Bride" (1866). Smetana, who became conductor of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in 1866, befriended him and encouraged his early attempts at composition. In 1872 he became organist of St. Adalbert's Church, which gave him enough financial stability to marry, and the following year a performance of his cantata "Hymnus" brought him his first success. He then applied for a government stipend offered to promising musicians. The judges, including Johannes Brahms, were so impressed with Dvorak's ability he was awarded the grant three times (1874, 1876, 1877). This marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Brahms, who helped get his works published. The "Slavonic Dances" (1878) for piano, which he later arranged for orchestra, made Dvorak famous throughout Europe. He had a great following in England and over the years (beginning in 1884) he traveled there nine times to conduct his music; he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University in 1891. His fame eventually crossed the Atlantic and in 1892 he accepted an offer to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Homesickness brought him back to his country in 1895, but not before his American experience had engendered some of his best loved music. He was director of the Prague Conservatory from 1901 until his death. His funeral marked a day of national mourning. Dvorak never outgrew his humble origins. An unassuming man of simple tastes, he disliked city life and formal social occasions. In discussions of anything apart from music he preferred to listen while others did the talking. He was happiest with his family at their summer home near the forests of Vysoka, taking long walks in the countryside, raising pigeons, or having a few beers with friends at a village pub. As unsophisticated as he may have been in person, Dvorak's technique was not. He was initially influenced by Wagner, in his first two symphonies (1865) and several compositions he later destroyed, and the debt remained in his feeling for harmony and instrumental color. Admiration for the Viennese masters (Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, as well as his friend Brahms) evolved into a more classical approach in form, such as in the Symphony No. 3 (1874) and the Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra (1875), though his music would always be romantic in its emotional directness. The "Slavonic Dances" ushered in the Czech nationalist style that would be Dvorak's hallmark from then on, making robust use of indigenous song and dance idioms. Later he explored folk material from other Slavic peoples. During his three years in the US, he had a creative shock when he was introduced to black spirituals by singer-arranger Harry T. Burleigh. America's classical music scene was then hidebound to Europe, so those involved were nonplussed when a celebrated European musician admonished them to create art from their own resources. On the subject of spirituals Dvorak urged, "They are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them. In the Negro melodies of America I have discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music". The "New World" symphony, inspired by these very melodies, proved his point and its premiere in New York on December 15, 1893 was the greatest triumph of Dvorak's career. He encountered Native American music while spending the summer of 1893 in the Bohemian settlement of Spillville, Iowa, and this had its effect on the companion chamber pieces the String Quartet in F (the "American", 1893) and the Quintet in E-flat major (1893); American folk is also at the heart of the great Cello Concerto (1895), completed shortly after his return to Prague. Dvorak's other significant compositions include the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies (1880 to 1889), the Violin Concerto (1880), the "Carnival Overture" (1892), the "Stabat Mater" (1877), "Requiem" (1890), the Piano Trio Op. 90, better known as the "Dumky Trio" (1891), and 13 other string quartets. "Rusalka" (1901) is considered the best of his several operas. Another enduring audience favorite is the "Humoresque" (1894), actually the seventh in a suite of eight pieces for solo piano. It has been transcribed for many instruments, including a violin version by Fritz Kreisler.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
Anna Frantiska Cermakova Dvorakova
1854–1931 (m. 1873)