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Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

Antonin Dvorak (younger drawing) Dvorak was one of several composers from the Romantic era who let his cultural roots shine through his music. Although the structure of his music follows generally along classical lines, his rhythms and melodies seem to embody the folk traditions of his native Czechoslovakia and surrounding regions. He was born in the village of Nelahozeves near Prague where his father was a butcher. Although his early circumstances were relatively poor, he learned violin, viola, piano and organ at school. The young Dvorak was clearly very interested in music making and destined for a career in music. He later studied in Prague and there for a number of years he played viola in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. This gave him some excellent practical experience not only in performing but in orchestral dynamics. The chief conductor of this orchestra was none other than Bedrich Smetana.

Smetana was the founding father of the nationalist school of music in his country and Dvorak was to follow his example in this respect for the rest of his life. Among other composers to influence Dvorak was Richard Wagner. Dvorak played in a concert of Wagner excerpts conducted by the composer himself, and this experience had a noticable impact on the direction that Dvorak was to take.

Antonin Dvorak (photograph) Another perhaps more lasting influence on his music was Johannes Brahms. Their paths crossed when Brahms was one of the judges in a composing competition which Dvorak won three years running. The two became friends and there is clearly much in common with their music in the way that they spoke the romantic idiom while staying true to the classical traditions of Beethoven and Schubert. But the two composers differed significantly in their overall sound. While Brahms' sound was often austere, he envied the younger composer's ability to produce infectious melodies with apparent ease. Dvorak's melodies were not based on existing folk songs but they clearly belonged to the same family. Dvorak also introduced some local dances with characteristic rhythms or forms to his music, such as Polkas, the Furiant and the Ukranian Dumka. These traditional dances permeated his popular sets of "Slavonic Dances" but also found their way into other works. He also produced a number of Symphonic Poems based on Czech stories like The Golden Spinning Wheel and The Water Goblin.

Antonin Dvorak in the New World

Antonin Dvorak: Complete Symphonies - István Kertész and the LSO Although his music is generally fresh, happy and extrovert, Dvorak also at times betrayed a melancholy side to his music. As his stature in the music world grew, he took a post as a professor in the Prague Conservatory and later became Director of that establishment. He toured Europe making some fruitful visits to London. He also went to America with his family and took up the director post in the National Conservatory of Music in New York. There he continued his interest in folk music learning about Black American and Native American music traditions. During his stay there he was to produce some of his well-known works including the famous Cello Concerto in Bm, a Violin Concerto for Brahms' friend Joachim, the "American Quartet" and his "New World Symphony" which seems to quote four notes from the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Dvorak's music for his 9th symphony (subtitled "From the New World") was originally intended for an opera based on Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" but that project was abandoned. The Slow Movement from the symphony is said to betray the composer's homesickness for his native land. The melody from this slow movement is played on the Cor Anglais an instrumental relative of the Oboe. The theme has been used on television adverts and was the basis for the song "Going Home". Dvorak himself was to go home after 3 years and he died in Prague in 1904.

Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No9 (From The New World) Marin Alsop and the Baltimore SO In a sense the composer Leo Janacek followed in Dvorak's footsteps since he was the next big Czech composer who looked to his native folk music for inspiration. However Janacek's music is very distinctive and quite unlike Dvorak's sound world. Dvorak's influence was perhaps stronger in the English speaking world where composers in England and America followed his lead and sought to mine their own folk music traditions for melodies and for inspiration. Certainly Dvorak's time in America and his interest in the music of Native Americans and African Americans showed the way for others, and his New World Symphony in particular set an example. Dvorak also had another indirect influence on the course of American music when the American composer John Stepan Zamecnik (1872-1953) studied with him for a number of years in Prague. Later, having returned to the US, Zamecnik worked closely with Samuel Fox of the Sam Fox Publishing Company to create a library of sheet music used by pianists to accompany silent films, and he also composed a string of film scores in the 1920s and 1930s in addition to concert and band pieces.

Antonin Dvorak's works:

    Dvorak Slavonic Dances for Piano Duet - sheet music cover
  • Several Operas, such as Rusalka - with its aria "O Silver Moon"
  • Choral Music - Stabat Mater, St Ludmila, a Mass in D and a Requiem, a Te Deum, various songs and the Moravian Duets, The Spectre's Bride, The Heirs of the White Mountains
  • Symphonic Poems - The Noonday Witch (in 4 movements), The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Water Goblin, The Wild Dove
  • Concert Overtures - The Carnival Overture, Nature, Othello
  • Other Orchestral Works - Symphonic Variations, Serenade in Dm, Serenade in Strings in E, Nocturne in B for Strings, Romance in F for violin and orchestra, the Scherzo Capriccioso
  • Various Concertos - Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto in G, 2 Cello Concertos, the 2nd in Bm is the best known and was often played and recorded by the famous cellist Rostropovich
  • Antonin Dvorak (older photograph)
  • 9 Symphonies - at one time the numbering of these was confused (e.g. on older recordings) but things seem to have sorted themselves out now - the best ones are numbers 6, 7 in Dm, 8 in G and 9 in Em subtitled "From The New World" - here is the well-known 2nd movement "Largo" Orchestral, arranged for Piano Solo or for Solo Instrument and Piano
  • Lots of chamber music - including 13 String Quartets (e.g. No.12 in F "The American"), String Quintets, Piano Quartets, Piano Quintets, Piano Trios (e.g. the "Dumky Trio"), the Sonatina for Violin and Piano, and many others
  • 16 Slavonic Dances - 2 sets of 8 released some years apart, Op.46 and Op.72
  • 8 Humoresques - including the well-known No.7

Antonin Dvorak - Recommended Sheet Music:

Here are some further links to good sheet music by Dvorak:

Antonin Dvorak - Selected Albums:

The following albums give a broad selection of the most popular works by Dvorak:

    Antonin Dvorak: Symphonies No7, No8 and No9 - Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra
  • Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, From the New World - Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Symphonies Nos 7, 8 and 9 on 2 CDs - Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • All the Symphonies Nos 1-9 on 6 CDs - István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Cello Concerto in Bm and Symphony No. 8 in G - Yo-yo Ma (cello) and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • The Piano and Violin Concertos, plus "Silent woods" (for Cello & Orchestra) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • The 16 Slavonic Dances Op.46 and Op.72 Artur Rodzinski and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • All the Symphonic Poems on 2 CDs - Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • The Complete (13) String Quartets on 10 CDs - Played by the Stamitz Quintet - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • The 2 Piano Quartets Op.23 and Op.87 - Susan Tomes (piano) Krysia Osostowicz (violin) Timothy Boulton (viola) Richard Lester (cello) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com