Famous Composers: Antonin Dvořák

Famous Composers Antonin Dvok  Sonatica Blog

Observant tourists with a bent for sociology may have noticed that in many continental countries the village pub is often combined with a retail shop of some sort: in Italy one finds perhaps an osteria/alimentari, in central Europe more likely a Gasthaus/Metzgerei - or a hostinec/feznicky. Giuseppe Verdi was the son of the innkeeper-grocer of Roncole; Antonin Dvořák was born on 8th September 1841 to the innkeeper-butcher of Nelahozeves on the banks of the river Vltava - by trunk road no. 8 about eighteen miles north of Prague. He showed early promise in music but when the family moved to Zlonice, a nearby mining village, he was obliged to work as assistant butcher-cum-bartender, since his father (despite musical inclinations) did not take his artistic aspirations very seriously.

But slicing carcasses and serving beer did not satisfy Dvořák’s inner urge, and at the age of sixteen he made his way to Prague, where after studying for a few years at the Organ School he secured a position as viola-player in the orchestra of the newly-founded Czech National Theatre not long before Smetana was appointed its conductor.

Dvořák remained at the theatre for ten years; meanwhile he established himself as a sought-after music teacher - and fell in love with Anna Cermakova, a professional singer, whom he married in 1873. (They had nine children all told, but the first three died in infancy.) The compositions of this period - his twenties - were strongly influenced by Wagner; many were subsequently thrown on the fire by the composer himself and those which survive are unrepresentative of the Dvořák who has achieved immortality. In the early 1870s, however, he turned over a new leaf with the cantata The Heirs of the White Mountain and the operetta King and Collier (a complete re-setting of an earlier and pseudo-Wagnerian essay) where the approach was more spontaneous. Indeed only a Slav idiom (such as Smetana favoured in his most characteristic works) would here have been acceptable, for the White Mountain was the scene of a crucial battle in the Thirty Years’ War and symbolized B oh em ia’s loss of her treasured independence, and the libretto of King and Collier also had a nationalistic slant. This was followed by two even better operettas - The Pigheaded Peasants and The Peasant a Rogue (sometimes dubbed, not ineptly, the Czech Figaro) - and the Stabat Mater, which brought its composer recognition far beyond the boundaries of Bohemia; thereafter he never looked back.


In 1884 Dvořák and his growing family established a permanent home at Vysoka near Pribrom, some thirty miles south of Prague, but from then onward he travelled much abroad. Like Mendelssohn he was a great favourite in Britain, which he visited on nine separate occasions: the cantata The Spectre’s Bride was specially written for the Birmingham Festival of 1885, the oratorio Saint Ludmila for the Leeds Festival of 1886; the Requiem had its world premiere at Birmingham in 1891. The following year he was appointed Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, but he never settled down in America and in 1895 returned home: humble in origin and pious in (Catholic) religious observance, he was never truly happy when parted from his ain folk. He belonged too to that select community of musicians - and writers on music - who, while in other respects staid and responsible members of society, cherish an unbridled passion for railways: early in April 1904 an orgy of engine-spotting in cold weather brought on a bad chill which aggravated chronic uraemia; he died on May Day. His widow survived him by twenty-seven years; she and their son-in-law composer Josef Suk carried the family tradition into the 1930s, and their great-grandson - another Josef Suk (a professional violinist) — has carried it into the 1970s.

Dvořák’s music here and there displayed a Brahmsian depth of feeling, but whereas Brahms appealed to the emotions through the intellect, with Dvořák it was the other way round. One can trace affinity with his German contemporary in the straightforward expositions of thematic material and the strong sense of harmonic contrast, but on the whole he had more in common with Schubert: notably an unquenchable flow of melody, a natural genius for modulation, an instinct for the right medium of expression - and a tendency to uncontrolled repetition (which to Brahms was anathema). Although much of his music, leaving aside the early attempts to emulate Wagner, was typically national, he rarely, if ever, made use of actual folk or gypsy tunes as did Brahms in his German folk-song settings and Hungarian Dances. For instance, the admirable Moravian (vocal) Duets - the first of his compositions to attract attention in Vienna - and the even more admirable Slavonic Dances - originally written as piano duets and the first to attract attention in London - conformed with Slav tradition in mood and rhythm but were one hundred per cent his own work. So were the songs and piano pieces, most of which, however, provided little more than an excuse for pleasant relaxation: unlike both Schubert and Brahms, Dvořák showed strength, rather, in large-scale choral works. The British press over-praised The Spectre’s Bride and Saint Ludmila, but there can be no gainsaying the quality of the Stabat Mater-, of the unassuming Mass in D major to which one is tempted to apply the irreverent epithet charming; of the Requiem with its constantly recurring five-note idee fixe which achieves apotheosis in the concluding ‘Agnus Dei’ section; of the stirring Te Deum, Handelian in its sturdy optimism. Of these four works the Stabat Mater and the Requiem, at least, have retained a hold on the public allegiance; the wholesale neglect of Dvořák’s operas I find unaccountable. Ten years in a theatre orchestra gave him a good sense of stage requirements, and only when the libretto was hopeless - as in Vanda and Armida - did he fail to do it justice. King and Collier and The Peasant a Rogue have already been briefly noticed; Dimitri (1882) was my way of being a sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and in retrospect is subject to unfavourable comparison, but in The Jacobin (1888) - an agreeably sentimental evocation of rural Bohemia - Dvořák was on firmer ground and much of the music showed him at his best. Around the turn of the century he touched still higher peaks with the rustic comedy The Devil and Kate and the fairy tragedy Rusalka - in which initiative was matched by long experience.


By the time he was thirty-five Dvořák had completed five symphonies. For many years only one of these - no. 5 in F major - held a place in the standard repertory, but the first four, also, have recently been recorded. These five symphonies were overshadowed by the magnificent Symphonic Variations, the sparkling Scherzo capriccioso and the sixth and seventh symphonies, all composed between 1877 and 1885. Symphony no. 6 in D major, as Donald Tovey rightly said, shows Dvořák at the height of his powers; I would add that in the third and fourth movements at least it gains rather than loses by comparison with Brahms’ no. 2 in the same key, which is often thought to have provided the stimulus. The seventh symphony is also a masterpiece - its slow movement is deeply expressive and in the scherzo one notes the characteristically contrasted 3/2 and 6/4 furiant rhythms - but there are occasional signs that the composer’s grip on the underlying principles of sonata form is insecure. (To particularize: the sombre yet passionately masculine opening theme of the first movement, after firmly establishing D minor, prepares the way for a disarmingly feminine dialogue between horn and oboe in the remote key of E flat major. Any first-time listener - bearing in mind the precedent of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ - might be excused for assuming that the exposition of the first subject, however terse, was already completed and that the second group of subjects was by now under way in an unconventional key; Dvořák shatters the illusion by scuttling back to D minor and repeating the opening all over again with heavier scoring. Those captivating horn and oboe phrases are therefore no more than an inconsequent episode - never to be heard again and only momentarily to be referred to.) Structural deficiencies are even more noticeable in symphony no. 8 in G major (1889) and no. 9 in E minor (1893, ‘From the New World’). The first and third movements of the G major are close-knit and attractive, but the second is long-winded and the finale, which sets forth confidently as though it were to be a theme with variations, ends by chasing its own tail. The ‘New World’ is justly beloved as a storehouse of memorable tunes (none of them specifically negroid, by the way, although some might be regarded as based on the highest common factor of Negro and Slav elements), but once again they tend to run round in circles without getting anywhere; here Dvořák seems to have followed Robert Louis Stevenson’s maxim that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive. By this time, perhaps, he himself realized that he was a romantic rather than a classical composer, for in 1896 he entered the field of programme music. The four symphonic poems The Water Goblin, The Noonday Witch, The Golden Spinning-wheel and The Wild Dove were inspired by the folk ballads of the Czech poet Karel Erben; a fifth, The Hero’s Song, was neither inspired nor inspiring. Those who are unfamiliar with Erben’s fairy-tales may find The Water Goblin and company somewhat frustrating. The orchestration is as brilliant as usual (Dvořák was a master in that respect), there are many passages of charm and a few of real beauty; for the uninitiated, however, constant repetition is poor compensation for the lack of coherent musical development which one has a right to expect in a symphonic poem.

Dvořák’s splendid cello concerto of 1895 (‘Why didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this?’ asked Brahms) surpassed in artistry the earlier piano and violin concertos, and much of his chamber music, too, was truly representative of his genius. He wrote fifteen string quartets all told, about half of which belong to his maturity; one would not expect to find the same depth of expression as in Beethoven’s ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets or the last four of Schubert, but ops. 51, 105 and 106, at least, are nevertheless admirable specimens of the genre. In their different ways the comparatively early String Serenade and string quintet (with double bass), the later piano trios ops. 65 and 90 and the piano quintet op. 81 are also most polished works of art; the last-named is especially worthy of close study. The smooth-flowing first movement, where the long opening melody is characteristically allotted to the cello; the dumka (elegy) with its alternating moods of resignation and resentment; the scherzo, which is something like a quick waltz; the gay and uninhibited finale: here is a symposium of the methods and style of Antonin Dvořák, one of the most human and most lovable of famous composers.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.