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Dvorák: the simple Czech music maker

30 November, 1999

Antonin Dvorák died on 1 May 1904. One of the few practising Catholics among the great composers, he left us some of the world’s most beautiful melodies, writes Bro Paul SVD.

“Don’t laugh at my Czech brothers,” Dvořák once rebuked a German who had a superior attitude towards Czechs.  “An artist has also his own country, in which he must have a firm faith, and for which he must have an ardent heart.”  Dvořák qualified on both counts in his love for his native Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic and one of the most musical regions in Europe.

Bohemia was previously in the western half of the former artificial state called Czechoslovakia. Both Czech and Slovak areas were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 300 years before World War 1. German was then the official language of Bohemia, which was almost surrounded by German-speaking people. Antonin Dvořák was born on 8 September 1841 in a village about 20 miles north of Prague, the Czech capital. He was the eldest of the eight children of Frantisek and Anna Dvořák, country people who had a small inn and pork-butcher’s shop. His musical father played the violin and zither and sang local folk songs. At first he discouraged Antonin’s ambition to become a professional musician and trained him to be a bartender and butcher instead. But later he agreed to let him study music and, first, German, which was then essential for a musician in Bohemia.

 So at 16 Antonin left home for Prague, where he stayed with an aunt and an uncle paid for his studies. Later he got job as a viola-player in a small orchestra that played in restaurants. And when the new Czech National Theatre was founded in 1862 he was employed in its orchestra. During his eleven years there he also established himself as a music-teacher and wrote his first compositions, most of which he destroyed. At the National Theatre he first met the other great Czech composer and nationalist, Smetana, who was the Theatre’s music director.

 Dvořák’s first success, in 1873, was his choral work, The Heirs of the White Mountain, based on a patriotic hymn. That year, aged 32, he married Anna Cermakova, a singer. He now left the Theatre orchestra and became organist at St Vojtech’s church in Prague, which gave him more time for composing. Two years later, when he was awarded a three-year government grant for “promising musicians” he was able to stop working as an organist and spend most of his time composing.

 One of the judges for the grant was Brahms, who recommended him to Simrock, his own music publisher in Berlin, stating, “Dvořák is a very talented fellow. Besides, he is poor. Please consider that.” A year later Simrock published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, which made his name known outside Bohemia. He first met Brahms in 1878 and they became close friends.

 Two years earlier he wrote his great work, the choral Stabat Mater as a memorial for the sudden death of his first child. Three of his nine children died in infancy. His favourite daughter Otilie, who married the Czech composer Josef Suk, died at 27. Suk and the Austrian Franz Lehar were among Dvoøák’s many pupils.

 Between 1884 and 1896 Dvořák, who spoke English fairly well, made nine visits to England. He attended performances of his own works at the Crystal Palace, Albert Hall and Queen’s Hall in London; he went to the Leeds Festival, the Birmingham Festival and the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester; and he made sight-seeing trips to Brighton and Stratford. His cantata The Spectre’s Bride, the oratorio St Ludmilla, based on the story of Bohemia’s conversion to Christianity, and his Requiem all had their first performances in England. In 1891 he went to Cambridge University to be made an honorary doctor of music and met the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford there.

 He was made professor of composition at the Prague Conservatoire in 1889 and the following year he made his only visit to Russia. He stayed with Tchaikovsky in Moscow and also visited St Petersburg.

 But his longest tours abroad were two extended visits, of 19 and six months, to the United States between 1892 and 1895.  Mrs Jeanette Thurber, wife of an American millionaire, invited him to be director, at the then huge salary of $15,000 a year, of the new National Opera Company, which she founded in New York as a rival to the Metropolitan Opera House. On his first visit Dvořák brought his wife, daughter Otilie, 14, son Antonin, 9, and a secretary; a few months later they were joined by their four other children.

 Dvořák liked the U.S., though he was very homesick there. As a cure for this he and his family spent a four-month holiday at a rural settlement of Czech immigrants in Iowa. While there he brought his children to see the World Fair in Chicago. But the most memorable outcome of his American visit was his greatest symphony and most popular work, From the New World, which was first performed in Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1893. Described as both “an exile’s longing for home” and “a symbol of hope for the underprivileged”, its lovely mellow Largo is probably his best known melody. He said he composed it “in the spirit of the Negro melodies of America.” Another popular fruit of his US visit was his charming Humoreske.

 Dvořák spent his last years between his flat in Prague and, mostly, in the country house he built in 1885 at Vysoka, about 30 miles from the city. Here he relaxed in the wooded countryside he loved and with his hobby of breeding prize pigeons. “I studied with the birds, flowers, trees, God and myself,” he said.

 One of the few practising Catholics among the great 19th century composers, Dvořák usually went to Mass every morning. He always gave God the credit for his talents and never completed a composition without adding Deo gratias. The great German conductor Hans von Bulow called him “the most God-inspired composer of the day,” for much of his work was inspired by his Catholic faith.

 Stocky and bearded and sometimes gruff in manner, he smoked cigars and drank beer and enjoyed the company of the working-class Czechs he grew up with. He always lived a simple lifestyle. Though an ardent Czech nationalist, he never played an active part in political affairs. Besides breeding pigeons, his other great hobby was train-spotting and watching railway engines wherever he went. He was on Christian-name terms with most of the engine-drivers in Prague. He loved going down to the shunting yards and noting down the names and numbers of the engines. This unusual hobby was to be the death of him.

 While visiting the engine-sheds in Prague on a very cold winter day in 1904 he caught a chill and was laid up for some weeks. On 1 May he felt well enough to get up, but while having lunch that day he died suddenly, aged 63. Four days later he was buried in Prague’s Citadel of Vysehrad.

 Dvořák felt he had “composed too much”. Not all his vast output is of a high standard. But his best work, full of beautiful melodies, is very easy to listen to. Only two of his ten operas – The Devil and Kate and Rusalka, with its popular Song to the Moon – were successful. He also wrote about 80 songs, the most popular being Songs my mother taught me.

 He had a very inventive mind. Oscar Wilde said his “exquisite music teased and tantalised” the listener. There is also a rare freshness about his melodies, like those in his Slavonic Dances and Rhapsodies.  Music-lovers will always be delighted too by his Symphonic Variations, the Dumky Piano Trio, his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, the Carnival Overture and his two cello concertos.

 Some say Dvořák wrote music to entertain rather than to uplift. He claimed to have “composed only for my own pleasure.” One of the most likeable and modest of the great composers, he also made a small fortune from his music. “But though I have moved in the great musical world,” he once said, “I still remain what I have always been, a simple Czech music-maker.”



This article first appeared in The Word (May 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.

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