Antonín Dvořák must be considered the greatest of the Czech nationalist composers of the later nineteenth century, and he continues to enjoy the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together music that derived its inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fields with the classical traditions continued by Brahms in Vienna, at the same time establishing a distinctively Czech musical idiom and suggesting the future development of music stemming from what had long been a rich source of musical inspiration within the Habsburg Empire.
Dvořák was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son would later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, his early training as a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, where he was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the rudiments of music from Antonín Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learn German, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to return to Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmann continued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he entered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.
Dvořák at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in a band led by Karel Komsák, which was later to form part of the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvořák's parallel work as a composer. In 1871 he found himself able to resign from the orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organist at the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able to persuade Simrock to publish Dvořák's vocal Moravian Duets. Their success was followed by the publisher's request for further music of this kind, resulting in the first series of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, composed for piano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878, saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45.
From this time onwards Dvořák's fame was to grow and he was to win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country on several occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony "From the New World ". By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.
Dvořák was a prolific composer for the orchestra and his nine symphonies form an essential part of symphonic repertoire, although the overwhelming popularity of the last, "From the New World ", has tended to distract attention from the earlier symphonies. The group of symphonic poems written in 1896 and 1897 are of particular interest, coming as they do three years after the last symphony and exhibiting a musical language based to some extent on the intonations of speech and generally associated therefore rather with the work of Mussorgsky and Janácek. These compositions in any case represent a departure into territory more familiar from Liszt or Richard Strauss in their use of extra-musical elements.
A Hero's Song (Písen Bohatýrská) was written in 1897, after the symphonic poems based on the literary work of Erben. Dvořák started work on the new symphonic poem on 4 August and three weeks later had completed the sketch of the whole work, which was completed in score on 25 October. It was first performed in Vienna under Mahler on 4 December 1898. It was apparently the composer's intention, perhaps autobiographical, to suggest the progress of a spiritual hero, starting out with courage to conquer, but then deterred by disappointments and despondence. Hope returns in a festive hymn, to which Nature adds encouragement, leading to a final song of victory. The work is scored for the usual full orchestra of the period, including triangle, cymbals and bass drum in its percussion section.
The opening, marked Allegro con fuoco introduces a strong figure in the lower strings, answered by horn and trumpet, joined by the violins. This leads to a passage marked Poco adagio, lacrimoso in a minor key, that returns to the major and the original mood before modulating to a gentler Allegretto grazioso. This in turn leads to music of greater excitement, an Allegro con fuoco now in B flat minor and a major Molto vivace, increasing in speed and excitement to a grandiose and triumphant conclusion:
Dvořák started work on his Czech Suite (Ceska Suita) on 4 March 1879, while working at the same time on the String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 51. It was first performed in Prague on 16 May by the orchestra of the Czech provisional Theatre under Adolf Cech. The suite, which is scored for double woodwind, with cor anglais, pairs of horns, trumpets and timpani and strings, is a form of serenade, its outer movements establishing the key of D major. The opening Pastorale, marked Allegro moderato allows the first violin to offer a Czech melody, joined by the oboe and followed by the viola, with a continuing ostinato accompaniment. The D minor Polka has a contrasting major Trio section and this movement is followed by a Bohemian dance, the Sousedská, the counterpart of the Minuet, introduced by the clarinet and bassoon, answered by the strings, and in the key of B flat major. There is a shift to G major as the flute, accompanied by a throbbing string accompaniment, introduces the Romance, in which the woodwind and horns have a major part to play. The suite ends with a Furiant, reinforced now by trumpet and drums and opening in D minor, to end in a cheerful D major.
The Hussite Overture (Husitská) was written between 9 August and 9 September 1883 at Dvořák's country house at Vysoká. It was intended to serve as an introduction to a play by Franti�ek Adolf �ubert on Hussite history, part of an intended trilogy that was not completed dealing with the Hussite rebellion, an event that had contemporary national significance in Bohemia. The overture was performed at the opening of the rebuilt National Theatre in Prague on 18 November. It is scored for a full orchestra and includes a Hussite hymn "Those who are the warriors of God" and a middle section reference to the Hymn of St. Wenceslas in its representation of the triumph of the Czech people against their enemies.
Dvořák's Festival March, Opus 54, was written in 1879 in appropriate celebration of the silver wedding of the Emperor Franz Josef and Elisabeth of Austria.
ReviewsWit's unhurried, thoughtful conception held my attention from first note to last, helped by playing of genuine applications and pleasing refinement from his excellent band... a very enjoyable collection. - Gramophone