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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some further links to good sheet music by Dvorak:
The following albums give a broad selection of the most popular works by Dvorak: