Dvorak was born in a small village on the banks of the river
Vltava, approximately 45 miles north of Prague. He left school
aged 1 1 to become an apprentice butcher, and the following year
was sent to Zlonce to learn German. Most of his time, however, he
spent on music lessons, learning the organ, viola, piano, and
basic composition. His interest in music was such that, despite
misgivings, his father eventually allowed him to enrol at the
Prague Organ School in 1857. There Dvorak received the strict
training of a church musician, but after classes attended as many
orchestral concerts as he could, enjoying especially the music of
contemporary composers such as Wagner and Schumann.
After graduating in 1859, Dvorak became principal violist in
the new Provisional Theatre orchestra, conducted after 1866 by
Sinetana. The need to supplement his income by teaching left
Dvorak with limited free time, and in 1871 he gave up the
orchestra m order to compose. He fell in love with one of his
pupils and wrote a song cycle, Cypress trees, expressing
his anguish at her marriage to another man. He soon overcame his despondency, however, and in 1873 he married her sister Anna
In 1874 Dvorak entered no fewer than 15 works —
including his Third symphony — for the Austrian
National prize. He won and received a welcome cash prize and,
perhaps more importantly, the admiration and support of Brahms,
who was one of the judges. Brahms put Dvorak in touch with his own
publisher, Simrock, who commissioned the popular first set of
Slavonic dances in 1878. These robust pieces, notable for
sudden mood switches from exuberant dance tunes to dark and
melancholy melodies, were played not only in the musical centres
of Europe, but also in the United States and England.
From this point on Dvorak's fame escalated. In 1884 he received
a warm welcome in London, the first of nine visits. Several of his
major works, including the Seventh and Eighth
symphonies, were written
for performance in England. Often regarded as Dvorak's greatest
work, the Seventh symphony powerfully expresses a mood of
tragedy through solemn music overlaid with ominous and foreboding
overtones. In contrast, the more relaxed Eighth symphony
makes use of folk melodies, conveyed with rhythmic verve and
Dvorak was appointed Professor of Composition at the Prague
Conservatoire in 1891, but soon after took up the offer of
Directorship of the National Conservatury of Music in New York.
He stayed for three years in
the United States, spending summer holidays in Spillville, a
Czech-speakmg community in Iowa. It is from this period that some
of his best-loved music comes, notably the Symphony No. 9
(''From the New World") and the American string quartet.
Both these works make use of themes influenced by American Indian
folk melodies and Negro spirituals. As Dvorak later admitted,
something of their melancholy can be attributed to the
homesickness he felt during his time in America. Just before
leaving in 1895 he produced his last major symphonic work, the
remarkable Cello concerto, which in its expressive power
and melodic beauty rivals even the Seventh symphony.
Returning to Prague with some relief, Dvorak resumed his post
at the Prague Conservatoire and m 1901 became its director. For
the last three years of his life he devoted the greater part of
his creative energies to working on symphonic poems and operas. He
died in 1904.
Dvorak's importance lies partly in his nationalist outlook.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Bohemia (later
part of the Czech Republic) - long suppressed under German rule -
fought for its political and cultural independence.
Dvorak, like Smetana and Janacek, consciously looked to
Bohemian folklore for artistic inspiration, imitating traditional
melodies, as in the Slavonic dances, or using traditional
legends, as in his best-known opera, Rusalka, composed in
1900. Dvorak exercised a great gift for absorbing folk styles and
reproducing them in the context of the Classical tradition.