Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Leopold Dvořák (September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904) was a Czech composer who frequently employed aspects of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia. Dvořák’s own style has been described as ‘the fullest recreation of a national idiom with that of the symphonic tradition, absorbing folk influences and finding effective ways of using them’.

Dvořák wrote in a variety of forms: his nine symphonies generally stick to classical models, but he also worked in the newly developed form of symphonic poem. Many of his works show the influence of Czech genuine folk music, both in terms of elements such as rhythms and melodic shapes; amongst these are the two sets of Slavonic Dances, the Symphonic Variations, and the overwhelming majority of his songs, but echoes of such influence are also found in his major choral works. Dvořák also wrote operas (of which the best known is Rusalka); serenades for string orchestra and wind ensemble; chamber music (including a number of string quartets and quintets); and piano music.

After Bedřich Smetana, he was the second Czech composer to achieve worldwide recognition. Following Smetana’s nationalist example, Dvořák frequently employed aspects, specifically rhythms, of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia. Dvořák’s own style has been described as ‘the fullest recreation of a national idiom with that of the symphonic tradition, absorbing folk influences and finding effective ways of using them’.

Dvořák displayed his musical gifts at an early age, being an apt violin student from age six. The first public performances of his works were in Prague in 1872 and, with special success, in 1873, when he was age 31. Seeking recognition beyond the Prague area, he first submitted a score of his First Symphony to a prize competition in Germany, but he did not win, and the manuscript, not returned, was lost until rediscovered many decades later. Then in 1874 he first made a submission for the Austrian State Prize for Composition, including scores of two further symphonies and other works. Johannes Brahms, unbeknownst to Dvořák, was the leading member of the jury and was highly impressed. The prize was awarded to Dvořák for 1874 and again in 1876 and in 1877, when Brahms and the prominent critic Eduard Hanslick, also a member of the jury, made themselves known to him. Brahms recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who soon afterward commissioned what became the Slavonic Dances, Op. 46. These were highly praised by the Berlin music critic Louis Ehlert in 1878, the sheet music (of the original piano 4-hands version) had excellent sales, and Dvořák’s international reputation at last was launched.

Dvořák’s first piece of a religious nature, his setting of Stabat Mater, was premiered in Prague in 1880. It was very successfully performed in London in 1883, leading to many other performances in the United Kingdom and United States. In his career, Dvořák made nine invited visits to England, often conducting performances of his own works. His Seventh Symphony was written for London. Visiting Russia in March 1890, he conducted concerts of his own music in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1891 Dvořák was appointed as a professor at the Prague Conservatory. In 1890–91, he wrote his Dumky Trio, one of his most successful chamber music pieces. In 1892, Dvořák moved to the United States and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. While in the United States, Dvořák wrote his two most successful orchestral works. The Symphony From the New World spread his reputation worldwide. His Cello Concerto is one of the most highly regarded of all cello concerti. Also, he wrote his American String Quartet, his most appreciated piece of chamber music. But shortfalls in payment of his salary, along with increasing recognition in Europe and an onset of homesickness, led him to leave the United States in 1895 and return to Bohemia.

Dvořák’s nine operas other than his first, Alfred, have librettos in Czech and were intended to convey Czech national spirit, as were some of his choral works. By far the most successful of the operas is Rusalka. Among his smaller works, the seventh Humoresque and the song “Songs My Mother Taught Me” are also widely performed and recorded. He has been described as “arguably the most versatile… composer of his time”.

Widely regarded as the most distinguished of Czech composers, Antonin Dvorák produced attractive and vigorous music possessed of clear formal outlines, melodies that are both memorable and spontaneous-sounding, and a colorful, effective instrumental sense. Dvorák is considered one of the major figures of nationalism, both proselytizing for and making actual use of folk influences, which he expertly combined with Classical forms in works of all genres. His symphonies are among his most widely appreciated works; the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World,” 1893) takes a place among the finest and most popular examples of the symphonic literature. Similarly, his Cello Concerto (1894-1895) is one of the cornerstones of the repertory, providing the soloist an opportunity for virtuosic flair and soaring expressivity. Dvorák displayed special skill in writing for chamber ensembles, producing dozens of such works; among these, his 14 string quartets (1862-1895), the “American” Quintet (1893) and the “Dumky” Trio (1890-1891) are outstanding examples of their respective genres, overflowing with attractive folklike melodies set like jewels into the solid fixtures of Brahmsian absolute forms.

Dvorák’s “American” and “New World” works arose during the composer’s sojourn in the United States in the early 1890s; he was uneasy with American high society and retreated to a small, predominantly Czech town in Iowa for summer vacations during his stay. However, he did make the acquaintance of the pioneering African-American baritone H.T. Burleigh, who may have influenced the seemingly spiritual-like melodies in the “New World” symphony and other works; some claim that the similarity resulted instead from a natural affinity between African-American and Eastern European melodic structures.

By that time, Dvorák was among the most celebrated of European composers, seen by many as the heir to Brahms, who had championed Dvorák during the younger composer’s long climb to the top. The son of a butcher and occasional zither player, Dvorák studied the organ in Prague as a young man and worked variously as a café violist and church organist during the 1860s and 1870s while creating a growing body of symphonies, chamber music, and Czech-language opera. For three years in the 1870s he won a government grant (the Viennese critic Hanslick was among the judges) designed to help the careers of struggling young creative artists. Brahms gained for Dvorák a contract with his own publisher, Simrock, in 1877; the association proved a profitable one despite an initial controversy that flared when Dvorák insisted on including Czech-language work titles on the printed covers, a novelty in those musically German-dominated times. In the 1880s and 1890s Dvorák’s reputation became international in scope thanks to a series of major masterpieces that included the Seventh, Eighth, and “New World” symphonies. At the end of his life he turned to opera once again; Rusalka, from 1901, incorporates Wagnerian influences into the musical telling of its legend-based story, and remains the most frequently performed of the composer’s vocal works. Dvorák, a professor at Prague University from 1891 on, exerted a deep influence on Czech music of the twentieth century; among his students was Josef Suk, who also became his son-in-law.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, B. 141

This was completed on 17 March 1885 and first performed on 22 April 1885 at St James’s Hall in London. It was originally published as Symphony No. 2.
The 7th symphony represent Dvořák at his best – it is the most ambitious in structure, and the most consciously international in its message. The Dvořák specialist John Clapham writes that “without doubt” the 7th “must surely be Dvořák’s greatest symphony,”

Compositional structure:

1. Allegro maestoso
2. Poco adagio in F major
3. Scherzo: Vivace – Poco meno mosso
4. Finale: Allegro

In the video the symphony is performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jirí Belohlávek.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88, B. 163

This symphony was composed in 1889 at Vysoká u Příbramě, Bohemia, on the occasion of Dvořák’s election to the Bohemian Academy of Science, Literature and Arts. Dvořák conducted the premiere in Prague on 2 February 1890. In contrast to other symphonies of both the composer and the period, the music is cheerful and optimistic.

The symphony is in four movements:

Allegro con brio (G major)
Adagio (C minor)
Allegretto grazioso – Molto vivace (G minor)
Allegro ma non troppo (G major)

In the video the symphony is performed by the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Manfred Honeck at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt on March 27, 2015.

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” Op. 95, B. 178

This symphony was composed in 1893 while Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892 to 1895. It is by far his most popular symphony, and one of the most popular of all symphonies.

The piece has four movements:

Adagio, 4/8 – Allegro molto, 2/4, E minor
Largo, common time, D-flat major, then later C-sharp minor
Scherzo: Molto vivace – Poco sostenuto, 3/4, E minor
Allegro con fuoco, common time, E minor, ends in E major

In the video the symphony is played by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Danmarks Radio Symfoniorkestret) conducted by Joshua Weilerstein.

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191

This is the last solo concerto by Antonín Dvořák. It was written in 1894–1895 for his friend, the cellist Hanuš Wihan, but was premiered by the English cellist Leo Stern. The piece is scored for a full romantic orchestra and is in the standard three-movement concerto format:

Allegro (B minor then B major)
Adagio, ma non troppo (G major)
Finale: Allegro moderato – Andante – Allegro vivo (B minor then B major)

In the video cellist Truls Mørk with Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen plays the concerto. The concert took place in Oslo Konserthus 26 January 2011.