Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves near Prague, in the Austrian Empire, and was the eldest son of František Dvořák (1814–94) and his wife, Anna, née Zdeňková (1820–82). František worked as an innkeeper, a professional player of the zither, and a butcher. Anna was the daughter of Josef Zdeněk, the bailiff of the Prince of Lobkowicz. Anna and František married on 17 November 1840. Dvořák was the first of fourteen children, eight of whom survived infancy. Dvořák was baptized as a Roman Catholic in the village's church of St. Andrew. Dvořák's years in Nelahozeves nurtured his strong Christian faith and the love for his Bohemian heritage that so strongly influenced his music. In 1847, Dvořák entered primary school and was taught to play violin by his teacher Joseph Spitz. He showed early talent and skill, playing in a village band and in church. František was pleased with his son's gifts. At the age of 13, through the influence of his father, Dvořák was sent to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonín Zdenĕk in order to learn the German language. His first composition, the Forget-Me-Not Polka in C (Polka pomněnka) was written possibly as early as 1855.
Dvořák took organ, piano, and violin lessons from his German-language teacher Anton Liehmann. Liehmann also taught the young boy music theory and introduced him to the composers of the time; Dvořák had much regard for Liehmann despite his teacher's violent temper. Liehmann was the church organist in Zlonice and sometimes let Antonín play the organ at services. Dvořák took further organ and music theory lessons at Česká Kamenice with Franz Hanke, who encouraged his musical talents even further and was more sympathetic. At the age of 16, through the urging of Liehmann and Zdenĕk, František allowed his son to become a musician, on the condition that the boy should work toward a career as an organist. After leaving for Prague in September 1857, Dvořák entered the city's Organ School, studying singing with Josef Zvonař, theory with František Blažek, and organ with Joseph Foerster. The latter was not only a professor at the Prague Conservatory, but also a composer for the organ; his son Josef Bohuslav Foerster became a better known composer. Dvořák also took an additional language course to improve his German and worked as an "extra" violist in numerous bands and orchestras, including the orchestra of the St. Cecilia Society. Dvořák graduated from the Organ School in 1859,
ranking second in his class. He applied unsuccessfully for a position as an organist at St. Henry's Church, but remained undaunted in pursuing a musical career.
In 1858, he joined Karel Komzák's orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague's restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra. Dvořák played viola in the orchestra beginning in 1862. Dvořák could hardly afford concert tickets, and playing in the orchestra gave him a chance to hear music, mainly operas. In July 1863, Dvořák played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra. Dvořák had had "unbounded admiration" for Wagner since 1857. In 1862, Dvořák had begun composing his first string quartet. In 1864, Dvořák agreed to share the rent of a flat located in Prague's Žižkov district with five other people, who also included violinist Mořic Anger and Karel Čech, who later became a singer. In 1866, Maýr was replaced as chief conductor by Bedřich Smetana. Dvořák was making about $7.50 a month. The constant need to supplement his income pushed him to give piano lessons. It was through these piano lessons that he met his future wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Čermáková, for whom he apparently composed the song-cycle "Cypress Trees". However, she never returned his love and ended up marrying another man. In 1873 Dvořák married Josefina's younger sister, Anna Čermáková (1854–1931). They had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy.
Composer and organist
Dvořák played organ at St. Adalbert's Church in Prague
from 1874 to 1877.
Dvořák called his String Quintet in A Minor (1861) his Opus 1, and his First String Quartet (1862) his Opus 2, although the chronological Burghauser Catalogue numbers these as B.6 and B.7, showing five earlier compositions without opus numbers. In the early 1860s, Dvořák also made his first symphonic attempts, some of which he self-critically burned. The manuscript of a symphony in C minor without opus number, B.9, composed in 1865, was preserved. This symphony has come to be numbered as Dvořák's First (see under "Works"). His first composing attempts passed without critical reception or public performances. His compositions up through 1870, according to the Burghauser Catalogue either had no known premieres, or were premiered in 1888 or later. For example, the Third String Quartet, B.18, was written in about 1869 but first published in 1964 and premiered in 1969. In 1870, he composed his first opera, Alfred, over the course of five months from May to October. Its overture was first publicly performed as late as 1905, and the full opera only in 1938.
In 1871 Dvořák left the Provisional Theatre orchestra to have more time for composing. Up through 1871 Dvořák only gave opus numbers up to 5 among his first 26 compositions. The first press mention of Antonín Dvořák appeared in the Hudební listy journal in June 1871, and the first publicly performed composition was the song Vzpomínání ("Reminiscence", October 1871, musical evenings of L. Procházka). The opera The King and the Charcoal Burner was returned to Dvořák from the Provisional Theatre and said to be unperformable. Its overture was premiered in 1872 in a Philharmonic concert conducted by Bedřich Smetana, but the full opera with the original score only in 1929. Clapham says Dvořák realized he had gone to "extremes in attempting to follow the example of Wagner". In 1873–74 he reset "the King and Charcoal Burner libretto entirely afresh, in a totally different manner", without using "anything from the ill-fated earlier version". The alternate opera, called King and Charcoal Burner II, B.42, was premiered in Prague in 1874.
Dvořák with his wife Anna in London, 1886.
On leaving the National Theater Orchestra after his marriage, Dvořák secured the job of organist at St. Vojtěch, also called St. Adalbert's, Church in Prague under Josef Foerster, his former teacher at the Organ School. The job paid "a mere pittance", but it was "a welcome addition for the young couple". Despite these circumstances, Dvořák still managed to compose a substantial body of music around this time.
In November 1872, Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 5, was performed in Prague, by a "splendid team of players" organized by Procházka. It was his first piece played in a concert. In March 1873, his Czech patriotic cantata The Heirs of the White Mountain was performed by the Prague Hlahol Choral Society of 300 singers (conducted by his friend and supporter Karel Bendl) to a warm response from both audience and critics, making it an "unqualified success". Dvořák's compositions were first coming to be recognized in Prague.
When Dvořák turned age 33 in 1874, however, he remained almost unknown as a composer outside the area of Prague. That year, he applied for and won the Austrian State Prize ("Stipendium") for composition, awarded in February 1875 by a jury consisting of the critic Eduard Hanslick, Johann Herbeck, director of the State Opera, and Johannes Brahms. It seems that Brahms had only recently joined the jury, as he was not on it during the calendar year of 1874, according to Hanslick. Hanslick had first-hand knowledge, as a continuing member of the jury
(from at least 1874 to 1877). Nevertheless, Brahms had time and opportunity to appreciate Dvořák's 1874 submission. Botstein says that the jury's purpose was "to award financial support to talented composers in need" in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The jury received a "massive submission" from Dvořák: "fifteen works including two symphonies, several overtures and a song cycle". Brahms was "visibly overcome" by the "mastery and talent" of Dvořák. The two symphonies were Dvořák's third and fourth, both of which had been premiered in Prague in the spring of 1874.
Clapham gives the official report for the 1874 prize, saying Dvořák was a relatively impoverished music teacher who "has submitted 15 compositions, among them symphonies, which display an undoubted talent...The applicant... deserves a grant to ease his straitened circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work." It says he had not yet owned a piano. Before being married, he had lodged with five other men, one of whom owned a small "spinet" piano.
In 1875, the year his first son was born, Dvořák composed his second string quintet, his 5th Symphony, Piano Trio No. 1, and Serenade for Strings in E. He again entered but this time did not win the Austrian State Prize. He did win it in 1876, and finally felt free to resign his position as an organist. In 1877 he wrote the "Symphonic Variations" and Ludevít Procházka conducted its premiere in Prague.
Statue of Antonín Dvořák in Prague
Dvořák entered the Austrian Prize competition again in 1877, submitting his Moravian Duets and other music, possibly his Piano Concerto. He did not learn the outcome until December. Then, he received a personal letter from the music critic Eduard Hanslick, who had also been on the juries awarding the prizes. The letter not only notified Dvořák that he had again won the prize, but made known to him for the first time that Brahms and Hanslick had been on the jury. The letter conveyed an offer of friendly assistance of the two in making Dvořák's music known outside his Czech motherland. Within the month December 1877, Dvořák wrote his String Quartet No. 9 in D minor and dedicated it to Brahms. Both Brahms and Hanslick had been much impressed by the Moravian Duets, and Brahms recommended them to his publisher, Simrock, who published them with success. Having in mind Brahms's well-received Hungarian Dances, Simrock commissioned Dvořák to write something of the same nature. Dvořák submitted his Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 in 1878, at first for piano four hands, but when requested by Simrock, also in an orchestral version. These were an immediate and great success. On 15 December 1878, the leading music critic Louis Ehlert published a review of the Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances in the Berlin "Nationalzeitung", saying that the "Dances" would make their way "round the world" and "a heavenly naturalness flows through this music". "There was a run on the German music shops for the dances and duets of this hitherto... unknown composer." The dances were played in 1879 in concerts in France, England, and the United States. Later Simrock requested further Slavonic Dances, which Dvořák supplied in his Op. 72, 1886.
In 1879 Dvořák wrote his String Sextet. Simrock showed the score to the leading violinist Joseph Joachim, who with others premiered it in November of that year. Joachim became a "chief champion" of Dvořák's chamber music. In that same year, Dvořák also wrote his Violin Concerto. In December he dedicated the piece to Joachim and sent him the score. The next spring the two discussed the score and Dvořák revised it extensively, but Joachim was still not comfortable with it. The concerto was premiered in Prague in October 1883 by the violinist František Ondříček, who also played it in Vienna with conductor Hans Richter in December of that year. Twice later, Joachim was scheduled to play the concerto, but both times the arrangements fell through and he never did play it.
Hans Richter asked Dvořák to compose his Symphony No. 6 for the Vienna Philharmonic, intending to premiere it in December 1880. However, Dvořák later discovered that, despite this intention, members of the orchestra objected to performing works by the composer in two consecutive seasons, due to "anti-Czech feeling". Adolf Čech therefore conducted the premiere of the symphony at a concert of the Philharmonia society (in Czech: spolek Filharmonie, predecessor of the Czech Philharmonic) on 25 March 1881, in Prague. Richter did eventually conduct the piece in London in 1882 and always retained an interest in Dvořák's compositions.
Reception in Britain
Dvořák's Stabat Mater (1880) was performed and very well received at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 10 March 1883, conducted by Joseph Barnby. The success "sparked off a whole series of performances in England and the United States", a year ahead of appreciation in Germany and Austria. Dvořák was invited to visit Britain where he appeared to great acclaim in 1884. The London Philharmonic Society commissioned Dvořák to conduct concerts in London, and his performances were well received there. In response to the commission, Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 7 and conducted its premiere at St. James's Hall on 22 April 1885. On a visit later in 1885, Dvořák presented his cantata
The Spectre's Bride, in a concert on 27 August. He had arrived a week early to conduct rehearsals of the chorus of 500 voices and orchestra of 150. The performance was "a greater triumph than any" Dvořák "had had in his life up to that time...following this phenomenal success, choral societies in the English-speaking countries hastened to prepare and present the new work." Dvořák visited Britain at least eight times in total, conducting his own works there. In 1887, Richter conducted the Symphonic Variations in London and Vienna to great acclaim (they had been written ten years earlier and Dvořák had allowed them to languish after initial lack of interest from his publishers). Richter wrote to Dvořák of the London performance, "at the hundreds of concerts I have conducted during my life, no new work has been as successful as yours."
Despite Dvořák's newfound success, a February 1888 performance of Stabat Mater in Vienna fell victim to more anti-Czech feeling and what the composer called "destructive criticism". He heartily thanked Richter for his "courage and devoted sympathy". In 1890, influenced by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dvořák also visited Russia, and conducted performances of his music in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1891, Dvořák received an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge, and was offered a position at the Prague Conservatory as professor of composition and instrumentation. At first he refused the offer, but then later accepted; this change of mind was seemingly a result of a quarrel with his publisher Simrock over payment for his Eighth Symphony. Dvořák's Requiem was premiered later that year in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival.
In 1891 the Bohemian String Quartet, later called the Czech Quartet, was founded, with Karel Hoffmann, first violin, Josef Suk, second violin, Oskar Nedbal, viola, and
Otakar Berger, cello. It is said that Nedbal and Suk had been two of Dvořák's "most promising" students at the Conservatory and took the initiative in founding the Quartet. As of 1891 Dvořák had written 11 string quartets, six of which had been premiered, and these were available as part of the repertory of the Quartet on tour, as were the two quartets of Smetana.
Dvořák with his family and friends in New York in 1893. From left: his wife Anna, son Antonín, Sadie Siebert, (secretary) Josef Jan Kovařík, mother of Sadie Siebert, daughter Otilie, Antonín Dvořák.
From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He began at a then-staggering $15,000 annual salary. Emanuel Rubin describes the Conservatory and Dvořák's time there. The Conservatory had been founded by Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy and philanthropic woman, who made it open to women and black students as well as white men, which was unusual for the times. Dvořák's original contract provided for three hours a day of work, including teaching and conducting, six days a week, with four months’ vacation each summer. The Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression, depleted the assets of the Thurber family and other patrons of the Conservatory. In 1894 Dvořák's salary was cut to $8000 per year and moreover was paid only irregularly. The Conservatory was located at 126–128 East 17th Street,[b] but was demolished in 1911 and replaced by what is today a high school.
Dvořák's main goal in America was to discover "American Music" and engage in it, much as he had used Czech folk idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in America in 1892, Dvořák wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of American music. He supported the concept that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of American music. He felt that through the music of Native Americans and African-Americans, Americans would find their own national style of music. Here Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, who later became one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional American spirituals.
In the winter and spring of 1893, Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No.9, "From the New World", which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl, to tumultuous applause. Clapham writes that "without question this was one of the greatest triumphs, and very possibly the greatest triumph of all that Dvořák experienced" in his life, and when the Symphony was published it was "seized on by conductors and orchestras" all over the world.
Two months before leaving for America, Dvořák had hired as secretary Josef Jan Kovařík, who had just finished violin studies at the Prague Conservatory and was about to return to his home in the United States. There he continued to serve as Dvořák's secretary and lived with the Dvořák family. He had come from the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where his father Jan Josef Kovařík was a schoolmaster. Dvořák decided to spend the summer of 1893 in Spillville, along with all his family. While there he composed the String Quartet in F (the "American") and the String Quintet in E-flat. Back in New York that autumn, he composed his Sonatina for violin and piano. He also conducted a performance of his Eighth Symphony at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that same year.
In the winter of 1894–95, Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191, completed in February 1895. However, his partially unpaid salary, together with increasing recognition in Europe – he had been made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna – and a remarkable amount of homesickness made him decide to return to Bohemia. He informed Thurber that he was leaving. Dvořák and his wife left New York before the end of the spring term with no intention of returning.
Dvořák's New York home was located at 327 East 17th Street, near the intersection of what is today called Perlman Place.[c]
It was in this house that both the B minor Cello Concerto and the New World Symphony were written within a few years. Despite protests, from Czech President Václav Havel amongst others, who wanted the house preserved as a historical site, it was demolished in 1991 to make room for a Beth Israel Medical Center residence for people with AIDS. To honor Dvořák, however, a statue of him was erected in nearby Stuyvesant Square.
Brahms continued to try to "clear a path for" Dvořák, "the only contemporary whom he considered really worthy". While Dvořák was in America, Simrock was still publishing his music in Germany, and Brahms corrected proofs for him. Dvořák said it was hard to understand why Brahms would "take on the very tedious job of proofreading. I don’t believe there is another musician of his stature in the whole world who would do such a thing."
Return to Europe and last years
Portrait of Dvořák's son-in-law, the composer Josef Suk
, with dedication: "Drahé miss Otilce Dvořákové"
("To dear miss Otilka Dvořáková"), 1894.
Dvořák returned from the United States on 27 April 1895 with his wife and Otakar Berger, and took care to avoid spreading the news about his return. However, after a performance of Dimitrij at the National Theater on 19 May, Dvořák fled to the family country cottage in Vysoká. Dvořák's first love and later sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, née Čermáková, died in May 1895. He and she had maintained friendly relations over the years. After her death he revised the coda of his Cello Concerto in her memory. During Dvořák's final years, he concentrated on composing opera and chamber music. In November 1895, he resumed his professorship at the Prague Conservatory. Between 1895 and 1897, he completed his string quartets in A-flat major and G major, and also worked on the cycle of symphonic poems inspired by the collection Kytice by Karel Jaromír Erben. As seen in Burghauser's 1960 Catalogue, Dvořák wrote his five Symphonic Poems in 1896, but after that completed few works per year, mainly operas: Jakobín in 1896, nothing in 1897, only The Devil and Kate in 1898–99, Rusalka in 1900, two songs and "Recitatives" in 1900/01, and finally the opera Armida in 1902–03. Rusalka became the most popular of all Dvořák's ten operas and gained an international reputation (below under Works, Operas).
In 1896 he visited London for the last time to conduct the premiere of his Cello Concerto in B minor by the London Philharmonic. Also in 1896, Brahms tried to persuade Dvořák, who had several children, to move to Vienna. Brahms said he had no dependents and "If you need anything, my fortune is at your disposal". Clapham writes "Dvořák was deeply moved and tears came to his wife's eyes, but it was quite impossible for him, a Czech, to contemplate leaving Bohemia." Brahms himself had little time left to live, as he died 3 April 1897. Also, Brahms hoped to gain an ally in Vienna to "counterbalance the influence of" Bruckner.
Dvořák's funeral on 5 May 1904 was an event of national significance.
In 1897 Dvořák's daughter Otilie married his student, the composer Josef Suk. In the same year, Dvořák visited Brahms on his deathbed and attended his funeral on 6 April 1897. In November Dvořák was appointed a member of the jury for the Viennese Artists’ Stipendium. He was informed in November 1898 that Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary would award him a gold medal for Litteris et Artibus, the ceremony taking place before an audience in June 1899. On 4 April 1900 Dvořák conducted his last concert with the Czech Philharmonic, performing Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, Beethoven's 8th Symphony. and Dvořák's own symphonic poem The Wild Dove. In April 1901, The Emperor appointed him a member of the Austro-Hungarian House of Lords, along with the leading Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický.[d] Dvoŕák also succeeded Antonín Bennewitz as director of the Prague Conservatory from November 1901 until his death. Dvořák's 60th birthday was celebrated as a national event. First, around the actual date, six of his operas and the oratorio St. Ludmila were performed in Prague, but Dvořák was away in Vienna; then in November 1901 came the "postponed official birthday party... In many towns all over Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech people celebrated his birthday."
On 25 March 1904 Dvořák had to leave a rehearsal of Armida because of illness. The first Czech Musical Festival, in April 1904, had "a programme consisting almost entirely" of Dvořák's music (Leoš Janáček was disappointed that none of his music was performed.) "Seventy-six choral associations" from all over Bohemia gathered in Prague, and "sixteen thousand singers" sang Dvořák's oratorio Saint Ludmila. "Thousands of listeners celebrated" the symphony "From the New World". Dvořák himself was forced by illness to "take to his bed" and so was unable to attend.
Dvořák had an "attack of influenza" on 18 April and died on 1 May 1904, of an undiagnosed cause[e] following five weeks of illness, at the age of 62, leaving many unfinished works. His funeral service was held on 5 May, and his ashes were interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, beneath a bust by Czech sculptor Ladislav Šaloun.