- Antonin Dvorák - From Bohemia to New York [Biography]
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Antonin Dvorák

"I am again as happy and contented in my work as I have
always been up to now and, God grant, I always shall be.

Dvorák was the most celebrated composer to emerge from 19th-century Bohemia (now within the Czech Republic). Born on 8 September, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia; Antonin Dvorák was the son of the village innkeeper and butcher. In 1855 he was sent to the nearby town of Zlonice for lessons in German, and it was there that he began to study music. Dvorák's father was not happy about his son becoming a musician. At fifteen, the young Antonin sought to change his father's mind by writing a polka for the town band. But the lack of rehearsal meant that the performance was a dreadful din. His father was even less impressed!

Despite his father's objections, Dvorák entered Organ School in Prague in 1857, and in 1862 he joined the orchestra of Prague National Opera, playing the viola. It was there that he first came into contact with conductor Bedrich Smetana, a great champion of musical nationalism. Through his music, and his use of Bohemian and Slavonic folk song and dance, Dvorák attempted to express the political desire for freedom from Austrian rule (which eventually came with the creation of the nation-state of Czechoslovakia in 1918).

In 1873 he married his pupil Anna Cermáková and began serious competition. In his early thirties, newly married, living in Prague, and getting by as a music teacher and church organist, life was difficult as Dvorák struggled to make his name. In 1874 he entered quite a few of his pieces for the Austrian State Music Prize. Among the judges was the famous composer Johannes Brahms. And it was support from Brahms that finally helped Dvorák gain international recognition. Dvorák, with his lively Slavonic Dances won a grant of 400 Dutch gulden, a sum that freed him to concentrate on several new and exciting projects.

By 1875, he was a part of two of the most important strands running through 19th century music: Together with Smetana, Dvorák brought the folk music of his native Bohemia into the limelight, establishing it as a unique musical genre of the 19th century. In addition, he supported the broader, Germanic tradition of symphonic music, through Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Dvorák was a master in both of these departments.

If 1875 was a landmark year for Dvorák, it was also a very sad one. Dvorák was a devoted family man, and when his two-day-old baby daughter, Josefa, died in September (one of three lost in infancy), he was devastated. Dvorák went on to express his sadness through his Second Piano Trio in G Minor. That autumn, the composer also embarked on his famous setting of the mournful Catholic text, Stabat mater, which wasn't published until 1883.

The following year was one of the most productive of his career. As well as the Serenade in E Major, he wrote a whole string of compositions, including the mighty Symphony No.5. Wildly successful, two music publishers competed to print his works. Dvorák never looked back. Encouraged by the success of his Serenade for Strings in E Major, Dvorák wrote a second serenade, this one in D minor. Arranged for a mixed ensemble of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and lower strings, it is considered to be a masterpiece, especially by wind players - some of whom prefer it to the Serenade for Strings.

Antonin Dvorák travelled to the U.S. in 1892, at the invitation of a rich patron of the arts, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, to become director of her conservatory of music in New York. He was quickly inspired by the music of the "New World", especially the songs of Native Americans and African Americans. Dvorák combined these rhythms with folk tunes of his country - you can find an echo of these sounds in much of the music he composed during his three years in America.

In 1893 Dvorák spent the summer on vacation in the Czech immigrant community of Spillville, Iowa. The town was a welcome retreat from the noise and busy schedule of NY, where he had just completed From the New World, and he was joined on vacation by his sister, wife, and six children. Dvorák found the experience not only inspiring but also uplifting. Long walks among the fields and orchards of Spillville with his fellow countrymen did much to curb the longing for his native Bohemia that plagued him during his three-year stay in America. While in Spillville, he composed the lovely String Quartet in F Major. It was given the title American Quartet because it was thought to be influenced by American music. The title might equally well apply to its sister piece, the String Quintet in E-flat, which was also written during Dvorák's stay in Spillville, Iowa. Emotionally, though, both pieces are a much stronger reflection of the Bohemian composer's fond memories of his far-off native land.

Dvorák's time in the U.S. was of lasting significance to the emerging American music scene. His patroness wanted him to encourage a distinctively American style of classical music composition, which he did to great effect. He taught several young composers, including Rubin Goldmark, from whom a young George Gershwin later took composition lessons between 1917 and 1918. Gershwin admired Dvorák's music and his Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha quotes from Dvorák's Humoresque in the opening bars.

Dvorák's ambition to become a major operatic composer stayed with him to the end of his life. While he was widely acknowledged to be a great composer of symphonies, concertos, and chamber music, the librettos on which he based many of his operas were felt by critics to have dramatically weak story lines. The music in his earlier operas is often wonderful, but music alone is no guarantee of operatic success. In 1901, Dvorák finally achieved the desired critical acclaim with Rusalka, the last of his ten operas. The year Dvorák turned sixty was a memorable one for him. Days after the first performance of Rusalka, he became a member of the Austrian Upper House in Vienna. In the same year, he was also appointed director of the Prague Conservatoire.

Taken as a whole, Dvorák's life was one of happiness and success. He was a genial family man, who also remained close in spirit to the beautiful land and peasant life of his native Bohemia. All this comes across in his music. There are the occasional dark and stormy moments, but for the vast majority of the time the mood is bright and sunny -- sometimes lyrical, sometimes lively and robust.

Dvorák died in Prague on 1 May, 1904

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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