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Classical Composers A-Z: Antonin Dvorak

Peter Wintersgill introduces us to the great Antonin Dvorak who had an astonishingly productive musical life.

Born
8th September,1841, at Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 45 miles south of Prague.

Father
Frantisek, butcher and inn-keeper, amateur musician.

Mother
Anna.

Family
One of a large family.

Childhood
Showed early musical ability, had singing lessons from the age of seven, sang in the church choir from the age of eight. Brought up, like Verdi, in a humble Catholic home in lovely countryside, which he continued to love all his life.
Apprenticed to father at the age of 11; could not stand it and after a year, in 1853, went to stay with Uncle Antonin at Zlonice, the nearby town. Learned the piano, organ, viola, counterpoint and a little German, which was necessary to get on in an Austrian occupied country.

Adolescence
In 1851 he went to Prague at the age of 10, to study at the organ school, played the viola in the orchestra there, learnt about the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, all of whom influenced his work.

Later he became keen on Wagner's music, encouraged by the leader of the orchestra. After three years, in 1860, father had to stop his allowance, so he had to leave the school and start to earn his living.

Early Adult Life
He joined an orchestra as a viola player, started teaching and spent his spare time composing - wrote a string quintet at the age of 20. He soon joined the orchestra of the Czech National Theatre, which put on plays and operas, eg: Smetana's Bartered Bride. Smetana became the theatre conductor and had considerable influence on his music, which became more nationalistic.

He married in 1873 Anna Cennova, a fine contralto and a former pupil, the sister of his first love, Josephina. The same year he wrote his Third Symphony. He had a long and happy marriage; his music seemed to improve as a result. In 1870 he wrote his first opera, Alfred, and in 1872 a cantata Hymnus, after which he was able to give up his orchestral post and concentrate on teaching and composition. His first successful opera was The King and the Collier, a revised version of Alfred; later the same year he wrote his Fourth Symphony.

Later Adult Life
In 1875 he wrote his Fifth Symphony and the Serenande for Strings. He was also the winner of an Austrian State Prize with the aid of Brahms, who was on the panel of judges and was most impressed with his music. He recommended him to his publisher, who published his Slavonic Dances (1878), and the Moravian Duets.

In 1876-77 he lost three children - one a neo-natal death, one due to an accident, the third due to smallpox. After this series of bereavements he wrote the Stabat Mater (1877), which was given in the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1884 (the first of nine visits to England). Several works were commissioned for performance in England, including the Seventh Symphony (1885) for the London Philharmonic Society, the oratorio The Spectre’s Bride for Birmingham, another oratorio St. Ludmilla for Leeds (1886), the Eighth Symphony for London (1888) and The Requiem for Birmingham (1891), in which year he was made Honorary Music Doctorate by Cambridge and was also appointed Professor of Composition at Prague Conservatoire.
They immediately granted him three years leave to accept the post of Director at the National Conservatory of Music in New York; he was there from 1892 - 1895. While there he wrote his last Symphony, Number Nine, From the New World (1893), Te Deum (1892), Biblical Songs (1894) and the Cello Concerto (1895). He lived for a short time in a Czech colony in Spilville, Iowa.

After all his success in England and USA he bought a house in the country at Vysoka, where he could spend long summer holidays with his family. He wrote his two finest operas - The Devil and Kate (1899) and Rusalka (1900). His music at this time was influenced by Negro melodies and the effects of homesickness. His pupils included his son-in-law Suk and a friend Novak.

His music is very happy and spontaneous, he was no academic and his music wasn't either. It was also influenced by the folk songs and dances of his native Bohemia. He accumulated honours at this time, including a PhD from Prague, Membership of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Austrian Order of the Iron Cross - 3rd Class!

He was still active at the age of 62 (in 1903) but became unwell in the spring of 1904. He died suddenly on 1st May, 1904, aged 63, in Prague, of a pulmonary embolus, following probable pelvic thrombosis.

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