Antonin Dvorak


It's time now for this week's edition of Czechs in History, and this week Nick Carey takes a look at composer Antonin Dvorak...

Antonin Dvorak is probably the Czech Republic's most famous composer. His work, covering forty years of his life, consists of more than one hundred major pieces, plus a great many smaller compositions, not counting those he destroyed. His works include nine symphonies, ten operas and countless other pieces, including, as it so happens, the opening music to Czechs in History, Stabat Mater, a cantata completed in 1877...

Antonin Dvorak was born on September 8th 1841 in the village of Nelahozeves in Central Bohemia, the eldest of nine children of the local innkeeper and butcher. It was a poor family, and Dvorak helped his father in the inn from an early age, playing the violin to entertain guests. After attending the local primary school, he was sent to the nearby town of Zlonice to learn basic German. It was in Zlonice, according to Jarmila Gabrielova, an associate professor of musicology at Charles University, that Dvorak met an important influence on his life:

Antonin Dvorak later immortalised his first music teacher in his opera The Jacobin. He completed his studies at the Organ School in 1859, and joined the Komzak concert band, which played in concert halls and inns in Prague and Germany. The band was incorporated into the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre in Prague. For the first few years that Dvorak played there, the conductor of the orchestra was none other than Bedrich Smetana, widely considered the Czech Republic's national composer.

To supplement his income, Dvorak also gave music lessons, and this brought him into contact with someone who was to play a special role in his life:

Antonin Dvorak and his wife Anna were together until his death. It was now the early 1860s, and Dvorak had begun to compose. Many of his earlier compositions have not survived, as Antonin Dvorak himself destroyed them. Why on earth would he want to do this? Jarmila Gabrielova:

In the early 1870s, Antonin Dvorak's works became well known in Prague, and in order to devote his time to composing, Dvorak applied for a grant for poor musicians. One of the members on the board that decided in his favour in Vienna was none other than the composer Johannes Brahms, who already knew of Dvorak's work:

It was in the 1870s that Dvorak wrote his famous Slavonic Dances, which established his reputation abroad.

Antonin Dvorak's fame was now growing in England, particularly his cantata Stabat Mater. This was based on an original Latin text, which was written in 1874 following the death of his new-born daughter. Dvorak's reputation there grew to such an extent that in 1884, he was invited to conduct some of his pieces in England, where he was very well received. This was the first of many trips to England. Such was his standing there that the University of Cambridge made him an honorary Doctor of Music. Dvorak was praised in England as being an Austrian composer, but as he was a Czech patriot, this did not go down too well:

Dvorak continued to live in Prague, composing and teaching, as he was now the Professor of Composition at the Prague Conservatory. Until that is, he accepted an offer to become the director of the National Conservatory in New York. He stayed in America for four years, working and composing. As in England, he was received well in America:

Antonin Dvorak returned to Prague in 1895, and resumed his teachings at the Prague conservatory, teaching composition to future composers, including Josef Suk, who later became his son-in-law. He also continued to work extremely hard on his compositions, and produced many works, including his most famous opera Rusalka, in 1900. Seemingly in the best of health, Dvorak died suddenly on May 1st 1904, aged sixty three. The cause of his death is still somewhat of a mystery:

As I mentioned at the start of the programme, Antonin Dvorak composed more than one hundred major pieces of music. These compositions stretch across the whole classical music spectrum. Dvorak was influenced in part by his friend the composer Johannes Brahms, who was in turn influenced by him. Some experts believe he was also heavily influenced by the German composer Richard Wagner. Jarmila Gabrielova: