The Bohemia into which Dvorák was born on 8 September 1841, in a village near Prague, was one facing rapid change. Like many from a poor rural environment Dvorák followed a natural drift towards Prague. Dvorák’s musicality was evident early on and his family supported him all through his musical training.
After graduating from the Prague Organ School in 1859, however, he faced grinding poverty. He eventually joined the Provisional Theatre Orchestra as a viola player (1862–71), performing in a huge range of operas. During these ‘years in the galleys’ he wrote two symphonies, string quartets and the opera Alfred, though he only began to make an impact on Prague’s musical salons after the success of his patriotic cantata, The Heirs of the White Mountain (1872).
Growing fame and the award of five consecutive government grants prompted huge productivity: operas, symphonic works and chamber music poured out of him, sharing such characteristics as appealing melody, classically oriented development and a consciously popular tone. The latter resulted in international acclaim for his Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances (both 1878).
Brahms’s friendship won him a German publisher, and concert societies across Europe and America began programming his music. A series of trips to England resulted in major commissions, including the Seventh Symphony (1884–5) for the Philharmonic Society, and The Spectre’s Bride and Requiem for the 1885 and 1891 Birmingham Festivals. Dvorák continued to compose operas, including two masterpieces, Dimitrij (1881–2) and The Jacobin (1887–8).
In the late 1880s he turned to more experimental and inclusive modes of composition, notably in the Eighth Symphony (1889) and the ‘Dumky’ Trio (1890–91). Further shifts in style occurred as a result of his stay in America as Director of the National Conservatory in New York (1892–5).
The huge popularity of the works of this period, notably the ‘New World’ Symphony and ‘American’ Quartet, was founded on approachability, inspired lyricism and an easily apprehended clarity of outline. On returning to Prague in 1895, Dvorák devoted himself first to symphonic poems and then to operas, the greatest of which was Rusalka (1900).
Though among the most popular of classical composers, Dvorák is one of the least well understood; his early work is dismissed as being overly neo-Romantic, a judgement which does little justice to the remarkable originality of much of it, or to the startling confidence of the Third Symphony (1873).
His compositional technique (securely founded on an education strongly resembling that of his 18th-century predecessors), his genius for memorable melody and his independent imagination resulted in one of the larger and more consistently enjoyable compositional outputs of the 19th century.
Profile by Jan Smaczny ©