Dvorak – (Czech Music Series)

ANTONIN DVORAK (1841 – 1904)

 Dvorak. Let’s start with the pronunciation. We have what is a perceived Czech pronunciation as Vorsjark. But is it and is that D pronounced or not? And does it matter anyway? Well in England we like to think that we pronounce foreign words as they should be… and we rarely get it right. Take lingerie, a French word where, as we all know our French, or so we think, we pronounce “lingerie” as “longerie” whilst the French pronounce “lingerie” like “langerie”! Now the French are about as bad as we are with names but they do make a point of francophoning a foreign name into a French one. I am not certain how the French president’s Hungarian ancestors pronounced it but in his native France he is Sarc-o-zee, the o being the short o for orange and not the long o for ohm. In England we tend to say Sar-cosy, like Tea Cosy. And, by the way, the French don’t pronounce the painter’s name as Day Gar but d’Ga. Still,vive la différence. So, what about Dvorak? The Czechs usually put their emphasis on the first syllable, Smetana or Martinu. My research on the Czech pronunciation of Dvorak is that it is D’vor-sjark with a distinct D and a slight lengthened emphasis on the sjark. My further researches on the internet reveal Dvorak also to be a typewriter keyboard system to compete with QUERTY; a Pennsylvanian wrestling champion and an advert for the increase of the size of the phallus. If anyone is interested they can do their own googling.

 Perhaps the most lovable of composers, Dvořák was born in 1841, in a village not far from Prague (then part of Bohemia in the Austrian Empire, now in the Czech Republic). His father was a butcher, an innkeeper and a professional player of the zither. Although his father wanted him to be a butcher as well, Dvořák with full parental support pursued a career in music. Nevertheless he was a man who could be trusted to carve a joint. At 16 he studied music in Prague and became an accomplished player of the violin and the viola as well as the organ. He wrote his first string quartet when he was 20 years old, two years after graduating.

 By the time he was 18, Dvořák had become a full-time musician, playing in various dance bands, usually as a violist. One of the groups with which he played formed the core of the Provisional Theatre orchestra, the first Czech-language theatre in Prague, and which Smetana directed from 1866. The income of a player in the orchestra pit was somewhat less than that my friends in the pit of the ENO would settle for and there was a constant need for Dvorak to supplement his income which he did by giving piano lessons. It was through these piano lessons that he met his pupil, Josefína Čermáková, for whom he got starry eyed and composed “Cypress Trees”. He proposed to her but he did not carve a place in her heart. No matter. There was her sister Anna next in the queue and in 1873 Dvořák married her.. They had nine children, three of whom died in infancy.

 After he married, Dvořák left the National Theatre Orchestra, in which he had been playing for 11 years, and secured the position of organist at St. Adalbert’s Church in Prague. This certainly provided him with financial security, higher social status, and enough free time to focus on composing. During this early period, he was able to compose a considerable output of music, learning much by the study of the scores of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. His later influences were Lizst and Wagner and, later still, Brahms. He was gradually finding his feet and one gets the feeling that in those earlier days he lacked a certain amount of self confidence and the music quality does vary, as one would expect. Some writers say that his music showed a little awkwardness as he developed his own style but it also shows imagination and invention. As well as songs and miniatures, there is a great deal of chamber music, in addition to an opera, and a concerto.


Matthew will be spending time on the string quartets, not all, as Dvorak published 14 of them. No need for analysis here but they all are all very tuneful with the American by far the most popular string quartet in the recital rooms.

 Toward the end of this opening period, Liszt and Wagner dominate, although Dvořák still tried to contain them in classical forms. The big work of this phase is the Symphony No. 1 entitled “the Bells of Zlonice” which Dvorak thought was irretrievably lost. It seems he had entered it for competition and it had not been returned. In later life, when he told his composition students, he was asked by one of them, “What did you do?” “I sat down and wrote another one,” he replied. Fortunately, it turned out that this composition wasn’t lost, merely misplaced, but it did not surface again until 1923 when discovered in the shop of a music dealer in Leipzig. It was not played until 1936 and only published in 1961.For this reason Dvorak claimed only to have written eight symphonies when of course there had been nine. On top of this, his later publisher, Simrock, would only number five of them, the ones that had been published, (four by Simrock). The numbering and order of the Dvorak canon has therefore been a nightmare.  Martinu was another for writing music commissioned for performance at short notice, putting it down and losing it and then having to write a replacement work at even shorter notice.

 Dvorak’s Wagner period was short lived and then, having reassessed what he was about, he switched his artistic direction, combining Czech folklore with classical forms. Major works of this period – the 1870’s – include his second string quintet in 1875, the same year that his first son was born, the Stabat Mater (1877), the symphonies 4-6, the two lovely serenades, one for strings and one for winds, the violin concerto, and the enormously successful first set of the Slavonic Dances, written originally for piano duet and even more successful when later orchestrated. The sixth symphony in particular shows an affinity to Brahms 2nd written at much the same time. Matthew will be dealing with this in his lecture No 4.

 In 1874, Dvořák made the first of four successful applications for a grant from the Austrian government. Apart from easing Dvořák’s financial stress, the grants also enabled him to submit works for competition which brought him to the attention of Brahms, who was one of the members of the jury. Brahms immediately became a fan and leaned on his own publisher, Simrock, to take on Dvořák, just as Liszt had earlier done for Smetana. Brahms was only just eight years older than Dvorak but he was more than well established by then and had a huge influence over Dvořák’s work, and the two later became friends. This was where Dvořák’s career outside Czechoslovakia began to set off. At home he had become the acknowledged successor to the ailing Smetana. His admiration for Brahms not only is reflected in the sixth symphony which sounds as Czech as they come, particularly with its furioso movement (Matthew will deal with this) but also with the seventh which for many is his most cherished.


One reason that led to the international spread of Dvorak’s reputation was Austro-Hungarian politics of the time. There were periodic bans on performances of Czech composers within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Dvorak had to endure scheduled performances of major works like the sixth symphony being cancelled in Vienna. Dvořák’s international career can be said to take off from his first visit to London in 1883 at the invitation of Sir Joseph Barnby where he conducted his Stabat Mater. The British went crazy for the music – a bit like Haydn some 90 years earlier – and Dvorak was to return to England eight more times. He was to conduct regularly at the Birmingham Triennial Festival and he certainly left an impression on one orchestra violinist from nearby Worcester. Yes, you’ve got it, Edward Elgar.

 It was the Royal Philharmonic Society which commissioned the seventh symphony. It has moved on from the sixth, and is a Germanic sounding work. It is not plagiarism but Dvorak donning Brahms’ clothes. It has a Brahms-like sound opening very like that of Brahms’ Tragic Overture. There are no quotes from Brahms but his fingerprints are all over it. With his growing international reputation Dvorak began to re-establish his own individuality from this influence and his later music would develop a much broader style. Another influence was Tchaikovsky (pronounced Chee-kors-kee by the way – I have that on the authority of Vladimir Ashkenazy) following a tour to Moscow and St Petersburg.

 Now Dvorak moved into academic circles, having been invited in 1889 to become professor of composition at the Prague conservatory. His best student was undoubtedly his son-in-law, Josef Suk. Dvorak turned out to be no teaching wizard, insisting that his students have a finished technique before he allowed them into his class. He would criticize student scores, put his finger on weak passages whilst in general treat his pupils as colleagues, insisting that they find their own way, as he had found his. In sum, great composers do not always turn out to be great teachers, as Beethoven had discovered after taking lessons from Haydn. Dvorak was however to receive other honours from Academia, particularly Cambridge University where he was awarded an honorary doctorate and for whom he presented his eighth symphony. This is a sublime work of nature and exquisite melody, reminiscent of some of Smetana. It ends with a thunderous orchestral sound somewhat similar to the sounds produced by Beethoven in the last movement of his seventh symphony.

 1892 to 1895 was to be Dvorak’s American period. Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy American music patron had offered him the position of artistic director and composition professor at New York’s National Music Conservatory, at a salary of $15,000. Now that was irresistible. It was not just big bucks but mega bucks, about twenty-five times what he had been earning in Prague. Now there were as yet no internationally recognized American composers and no recognized American style to speak of. This was the country of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. It was soon made clear that Dvorak was expected to pave the way for an “American” musical style. Just like that. I mean can you imagine in 1892 before the emergence of Elgar , Brahms or Verdi being asked to come here to create a national style of English music, I ask you?

 Without any precedent of “home spun folksy music” to go by, Dvorak took this charge to heart. He set about discovering “American Music” much as he had used Czech folk idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in America in 1892, he would write newspaper articles reflecting on the state of American music. He supported the concept that African-American and native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of the new American music. One of his pupils was Harry Burleigh (1867-1949), one of the earliest African-American composers. It was he who, at Dvorak’s request, introduced Dvorak to traditional American spirituals. It was Dvorak who urged Burleigh to collect and arrange the spirituals he sung, which he then set about doing, about 300 of them. His works included, Deep River; Steal Away; Go Down Moses. Without Harry Burleigh there would have been no Dvorak New World Symphony as we know it, no Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett and no Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by the English rugby team supporters which would have been a good thing as they do not know what it is about anyway.

 Out of this mix emerged Dvorak’s ninth symphony, “From The New World”, ever popular, ever fresh and as American as Hopalong Cassidy; then the American Quartet, originally called the Nigger Quartet but renamed in the 1950’s. There followed his American Quintet which was so named. Dvorak was however also to continue to compose in his own home spun Czech style, particularly his Te Deum and his cello concerto which could be described as Slavonic sounding. It is a masterpiece which allows the cello to be heard against the largest of orchestras in the largest of halls. Brahms, who had written his double concerto in 1887 exclaimed, “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!” It reflects in particular, as do many of the works of the American period, his longing for his homeland. His summers were spent in Iowa with Czech speaking fiends. As Bill Bryson has written that nothing in Iowa is more than six feet high I doubt that the place afforded Dvorak much scenic pleasure. Eventually, he had had enough. Added to his home sickness came the loss of the Thurber fortune in a financial disaster long before the Wall Street crash or the Dot Com fiasco were dreamed of. She was no longer able to keep to her part of the bargain and had stopped paying Dvorak. With $15,000 dollars a year going up the Swanee, Dvořák and his family packed their bags and returned to Prague.

 Thus we come to Dvořák’s final period dominated by the superbly orchestrated tone poems (The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, and The Golden Spinning-Wheel, among others). He also turned back to opera. Dvořák considered himself primarily an operatic composer, although, only two, Rusalka and The Devil and Kate, get staged outside the Czech Republic. Yet he wrote more operas (11) than he did symphonies (9).

 In 1897 Dvořák’s daughter got married to his student, the composer Josef Suk. Her death following that of Dvořák would give birth to Suk’s Asrael Symphony which Matthew will discuss in Lecture 5. Dvorak’s 60th birthday in 1901was celebrated as a national event, with concerts and a banquet in his honour.

 Antonin Dvořák remains the great 19th-century Czech composer, building on the achievement of Smetana, truly international, and outstanding in symphony, concerto, symphonic overture, and chamber music