Antonin Dvorak

The first Bohemian composer to achieve worldwide recognition, Antonin Dvorak is the best known and world's most-played Czech composer of all times. His musical inventiveness was endless, and the beauty of his melodies unique.

Dvorak was born in 1841 in the Bohemian village of Nelahozeves. He began voice and violin lessons at a young age, eventually traveling to a nearby town in 1853 to expand his studies to include piano, organ, continuo, and music theory. He continued to advance, moving to the Prague Organ School, where he performed works by the great classic composers of Europe, and attended concerts conducted by Liszt and Bulow.

After graduating in 1859, Dvorak became a violist in a local dance band, which in 1862 became the start of the orchestra for the brand new Provisional Theatre. In this position, among other playing opportunities in Prague, he found himself performing under the batons of Smetana and Wagner, while also teaching and composing privately. 1871 was a monumental year in Dvorak’s life because he made a public announcement in a Prague journal that he was composing. The editor of the journal helped arrange a concert to premiere some of Dvorak’s songs, which began a new chapter in his life.

When his cantata, Hymn: the Heirs of the White Mountain, was well received in 1873, Dvorak gained the confidence to offer his first opera, King and Charcoal Burner, to the Provisional Theatre. Production ceased after just one month of preparation however, for the performers found the music too challenging. This moment marked a turn in Dvorak’s compositional style. He destroyed many old manuscripts and even created a new second version of his opera, which was successfully performed in 1874. Throughout the 1870s he sought additional income by applying for, and receiving grants from the Austrian State Stipendium several times. One such grant included in the submission the Moravian Duets for two sopranos and piano. Brahms, who was an adjudicator for the grant, loved the piece so much that he connected Dvorak with Simrock in Berlin to publish the music. This marked a huge turn around in Dvorak’s career for as his publications sold, he gained attention from the public both local and abroad, earned commissions and recognition, and finally experienced financial stability.

It did not last long however, because the 1880s brought political tensions that prevented the spreading of his music, notably in Germany and Austria where people became biased against Slavic music. The predicament left Dvorak distressed, feeling he needed to choose between staying loyal to his heritage and betraying his country to seek international fame. He decided to ask his publisher to begin adding German translations to his sheet music and around this time, his compositions are characterized by a loss of his nationalistic, joyful sound for the adoption of darker mood.

England seemed untouched by these prejudices and in 1884, Dvorak traveled to London for the first of eight trips. He became an instant success, dubbed a “musical hero”, and felt free to express his Czech ideas in the music he brought to England. These visits also eased some of the increasing struggles with Simrock as he developed a new relationship with Novello in England.

The late 1880s and early 1890s were promising years for Dvorak. He received numerous awards and honors and began teaching composition at the Prague Conservatory. His music had also been successful in America and in 1892, he moved to the states after accepting a position at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. To meet the high expectations of the people, he searched the country’s roots for inspiration and found it in the music of African American spirituals and American Indian songs.

The economic downturn in 1893, along with Dvorak’s homesickness, led him back to his homeland in 1895. This time period led to his exploration of writing programmatic music and he found himself being honored once again for his expertise. In 1901, he became director of the Prague Conservatory and spent the reminder of his career working on operas. Dvorak passed away in 1904, shortly after the first performance of his final opera, Armida.

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