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.