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Dvořák was a composer like no other. Born the son of a butcher-innkeeper in the rural countryside north of Prague, with the odds stacked against him he became one of Europe’s most celebrated musicians.
Yet no matter how many honours were bestowed upon him, Dvořák remained true to his roots, or as the great conductor Hans von Bülow once memorably put it, “the peasant in a frock-coat”.
Dvořák was one of a new breed of nationalist composers who emerged during the 19th century, which included Grieg (Norway), Tchaikovsky (Russia), Liszt (Hungary), Chopin (Poland) and Sibelius (Finland). He adored his Bohemian homeland and preferred spending an evening with his chums at the local tavern to hobnobbing with the rich and famous. All of which spills over in his life-enhancing music, which has the effect of welcoming its listeners with a warm, friendly bear-hug.
With Dvořák there are never any airs and graces or bravado displays of musical sophistication. Although he was a master symphonist, a brilliant orchestrator and inspired tunesmith, he made everything sound so effortless that casual listeners barely noticed the skill involved.
As his great friend and supporter Brahms once put it: “Dvořák is never at a loss for an idea, unlike the rest of us. His music is so beautiful, refined and natural sounding.”
Yet even Dvořák’s disarming modesty could not disguise his supreme achievement. Despite not really hitting his stride until he was 34, his orchestral and chamber music is littered with masterpieces, from symphonies and concertos to string quartets and piano trios.
And if his delightful piano works and songs don’t quite stack up against those of the “immortal Brahms”, Dvořák proved himself in a genre the German master never touched: opera.
“I am just a plain Czech musician,” he reflected towards the end of his life. “Disliking exaggerated humility and despite the fact that I have moved a little in the great musical world, I remain what I always was: a simple Czech musician.”
Dvořák’s birthplace, the picturesque village of Nelahozeves, may seem an unlikely place for a budding composer to flourish in – especially as his father was keen to see him train as a butcher!
Yet music was all around him from the start, especially on Sundays when after church the local band would strike up a lively tune and the villagers would dance until they dropped. For Dvořák, this was what music was all about – fun, rejoicing and relaxation. Initially his aspirations went no further than learning to play the violin so that he could join the ad hoc village ensemble.
If Dvořák enjoyed a charm-laden, parochial start in life, his senior schooling at Zlonice and Ceská Kamenice was more thorough and left him with a working knowledge of German, an invaluable asset for a budding musician.
He was a gifted though not outstanding student, whose creative genius flowered only in stages. Following specialist training at the Prague Organ School (1857–9), the 18-year-old joined a town band (this time on viola) playing dance music in cafes, and then spent ten years in the viola section of the Prague National Theatre Orchestra, where he learned a vast repertoire.
To many of Dvořák’s friends it appeared that his musical life revolved entirely around the viola. Yet behind the scenes he was honing his composing skills with a series of apprentice works that include his first two symphonies and first four string quartets.
He was never short of ideas, but initially lacked the skill to develop them along accepted Germanic lines. Sadly, such were the high standards he expected of himself that much of what he composed during this period was used to help keep his open fire burning.
In 1873 Dvořák finally plucked up the courage to leave the orchestra and taking a paid organist’s post resolved to make his way in the world as a freelance composer. Almost straight away things began to happen: Smetana conducted the premiere of his Third Symphony, Brahms made contact and helped him find a publisher and the young Janácˇek professed his admiration during a walking holiday.
Meanwhile his music had broken free with a series of early masterpieces that includes the two serenades (for strings and wind respectively), the glorious Symphonic Variations and the Fifth Symphony. Most crucial of all was Dvořák’s first set of eight Slavonic Dances which became an overnight sensation. In just a few years he had progressed from provincial hopeful to internationally acclaimed master.
Dvořák’s new publishing contract with Simrock proved axiomatic in spreading the word. At whirlwind speed his recent masterpieces were heard for the first time in Britain, Germany and the United States, while Brahms ensured a warm welcome from Vienna after alerting his most supportive critic, Eduard Hanslick, to the Bohemian’s exceptional talent.
Dvořák was churning out first-rate music almost as fast as it could be published, including his Sixth Symphony, Violin Concerto, Scherzo Capriccioso, two string quartets (Nos 10 and 11), 50 piano miniatures, 30 songs and the opera Dimitrij.
Most crucially he completed his Seventh Symphony (1885), a blazing masterwork that even the self-effacing Dvořák felt was destined to “shake the world”.
He also made the first of nine trips to England, where he found himself fêted and adored in a way that bears comparison with the halcyon visits of Haydn and Mendelssohn. When composer Charles Stanford asked him how he managed to produce so much music, he joked “I generally complete six pages of full score in the morning, and if one multiplies that by 365 days, the result is 2,190 pages – which is far more music than anyone wants to listen to!”
As if to prove that all this success hadn’t gone to his head he then produced a second set of eight Slavonic Dances (1886) that is, if anything, even finer than the first.
A visit to the bitterly cold wastes of Russia may have felt rather subdued after the warm welcome from the English, but at least Dvořák managed to spend some time with the great Tchaikovsky, with whom he established an instant rapport.
The most unexpected and lucrative offer, however, came from American millionaire Jeanette Meyers Thurber, who invited Dvořák to New York to become director of the city’s new National Conservatory of Music. While in the United States he took the opportunity to visit some of the tourist spots, including Niagara Falls.
Although he felt dreadfully homesick at times, his separation from the homeland inspired three of his most popular scores: the New World Symphony No.9, the American String Quartet and the Cello Concerto, which left Brahms full of admiration.
“Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto as good as this?” he enthused. “If I had, I would have written one a long time ago.”
Returning to his homeland in 1895, Dvořák spent his final years as one of the most sought-after composers in Europe. Brahms even went as far as to offer him his entire personal fortune in an attempt to get him to settle in Vienna.
Most outstanding amongst Dvořák’s late works are a group of four symphonic poems based on macabre folktales, his last two string quartets (Nos 13 and 14) and the operas Kate And The Devil, Rusalka and Armida. It was during the premiere of the latter that he was taken suddenly ill with kidney disease.
He died of a heart attack five weeks later on May Day 1904, the most gifted and popular composer Czechoslovakia has ever produced.