Antonin Dvorák: An Appreciation

Antonin Dvorák was probably the most approachable of all the great composers, who makes it all sound so easy.

Why do we call Dvorák a “Nationalist” composer?

Such crucial figures as Glinka (Russia), Grieg (Norway), Sibelius (Finland) and Elgar (England) became the Nationalist inspiration for whole generations of composers in their native lands. Bohemia’s musical torchbearer was Bedrich Smetana (composer of the popular Vltava), whose natural heir and successor was Antonín Dvorák. One of the most unassuming and supremely lyrical of all the late Romantics, Dvorák’s musical style was once succinctly described by the great conductor Hans von Bülow as “the peasant in a frock-coat”.

Wasn’t he a bit of a late starter?

By the time he was 30 Dvorák had written a number of large-scale pieces in his spare time, including his first two symphonies. But he destroyed most of them, commenting somewhat dejectedly that “I always have enough paper to make a fire.”

But then it all began to take off?

Dvorák leapt to international prominence with dizzying speed. Barely known outside his homeland beforehand, his first set of Slavonic Dances (1878) in particular made him a household name throughout Europe.

Didn’t Dvorák have a bit of a love-hate relationship with his publisher?

Dvorák was a proud and plain-speaking man who would not countenance any musical interference from his publisher, Simrock: “I shall simply do what God tells me to do, and that will certainly be the best thing!” For his part, Simrock continually walked a financial tightrope between the huge losses he made on Dvorák's large-scale symphonic scores, as opposed to the small fortunes which resulted from such popular fare as the Slavonic Dances.

Did Dvorák actually visit North America?

Both the New World Symphony and the American Quartet were products of Dvorák's two protracted visits to North America. In exchange for accepting the post of director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music for two years, in addition to directing several concerts of his own compositions, he received a small fortune from millionairess Jeanette M Thurber.