Antonin Dvorak


A Bohemian composer, Antonin was the son of Frantisek Dvorak, a small publican and village butcher. At the door of his father’s inn Dvorak first appeared as a practical musician, taking his place among the fiddlers who scraped out their 'furiants' and other wild dances for the benefit of the holiday-making local beaux and belles. At the village school he learnt from Josef Spitz both to sing and to play the violin, with so much effect that soon he was able to assist in the parish church services. At twelve years old he was sent by his father to Zlonic, near Schlan, to an uncle, with whom he lived while passing through the higher-grade classes at school. Here, too, he was fortunate enough to find a valuable friend in A. Liehmann, organist and chief musician of the little town, a competent musician, who instructed the boy in elementary theory, organ and pianoforte playing. The theory studies, however, could not long be continued, since Liehmann soon acknowledged in his own dialect that the boy was extraordinarily full of promise, at the same time realizing that he could not do much to assist. But Dvorak soon left Zlonic for Böhmisch-Kamnitz, where he learnt German and advanced his musical studies under Hancke. A year later he was summoned to return to Zlonic to assist his father, who had set up in business there. But his craving for a musical career was not to be checked, and after considerable trouble with his father consent was obtained to his settling in Prague in order to devote himself entirely to music.

In October 1857, Dvorak entered the organ-school of the Gesellschaft der Kirchenmusik, where he worked for three years. The small financial aid his father was at first able to lend soon ceased, and after being in Prague but a few months Dvorak found himself practically thrown on his own resources. By playing the viola in a private orchestra and in various inns of the town he succeeded in obtaining a precarious livelihood. On the opening in 1862 of the Bohemian Interimstheater, Dvorak, with part of this band, formed the nucleus of the theatrical orchestra, and remained connected with it for eleven years, when he became organist of the church of St Adalbert. At this time his small stipend was augmented slightly by the fees of a few pupils, though the privations suffered by him and his wife (for he had recently married) must have been great. But in spite of financial worry and of the amount of time he had to devote to his professional duties and private pupils, Dvorak found leisure not only for his own studies of the classics, but also to compose. His work, like his daily life, was beset with difficulties, for he had not the means to provide himself with sufficient music-paper, much less to hire a pianoforte; and it is possible that several of his important early works would never have been written had it not been for the generosity of Karel Bendl, the composer, who helped him in many ways.

Dvorak himself said afterwards that he retained no recollection of much that he then composed. In and about 1864 two symphonies, a host of songs, some chamber-music, and an entire opera, Alfred, lay unheard in his desk. The libretto of this opera was made up from materials found in an old almanack. Most of these works were burnt long ago. In 1873, he made his first bid for popularity by his patriotic hymn Die Erben des weissen Berges (published many years later as Op. 30). Its reception was enthusiastic, and Dvorak’s subsequent works were eagerly awaited and warmly received on production. In 1874 his opera König und Köhler resulted in a fiasco at Prague, owing to its mixture of styles. Nothing daunted, Dvorak recomposed the whole work in three months. In 1875, on the recommendation of Brahms and Hanslick, he obtained a stipend from the Kultus-Ministerium at Vienna, which freed him from care and enabled him to indulge in composition to his heart’s content. Following on this success came a commission in 1877 for a series of Slavic dances, which took the public by storm. Immediately compositions, old and new, began to pour from the publisher. English sympathy was entirely won by the Stabat Mater in 1883, and increased by the symphonies in D, D mi., and F, G, and E mi. (The American), and the cantata The Spectre’s Bride, based on K. J. Erben’s elaboration of the Bohemian version of the saga treated in Burger’s Leonore. The favourable effect produced by these works was somewhat chilled by the oratorio St Ludmila, a comparatively feeble work written 'to suit English taste' for the Leeds Festival of 1886. The three overtures Opp. 91, 92, 93, failed to hold their place, but the pseudo-American symphony has become one of Dvorak’s most popular works, and much of his chamber-music, of which there is abundance, seems quite permanent in its place in concert programmes. In 1892, after having frequently visited England, Dvorak became head of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York. There he remained till 1895, when he returned to Prague

Dvorak’s music is characteristically national, though less purely so than that of Smetana. But in spite of his industry and dramatic talent not one of his operas has been really successful. A master of the orchestra and a composer of real individuality, he earned and deserved his place among the elect, not only by his great gifts, but by his abnormal energy in their development.

Place of birth: Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Place of death: Prague



Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, 11th edn, vol. 8. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., 1911.

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