Antonín Dvořák – the Most Versatile Composer of His Time!

dvorakAntonín Leopold Dvořák (September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904) was a composer born in Muehlhausen in then Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic.) Following the example of Bedřich Smetana, Dvořák frequently employed aspects, specifically rhythms, of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia. Dvořák’s own style has been described as ‘the fullest re-creation of a national idiom with that of the symphonic tradition, absorbing folk influences and finding effective ways of using them’.

Dvořák displayed his musical gifts at an early age, being an apt student of violin playing from age 6. The first public performances of his works were in Prague in 1872. Then,  in 1874, he first made a submission for the Austrian State Prize for Composition, including scores of two further symphonies and other works. Brahms, unbeknownst to Dvořák, was the leading member of the jury and was highly impressed. The prize was awarded to Dvořák for 1874 and again in 1876 and in 1877, when Brahms and the prominent critic Eduard Hanslick, also a member of the jury, made themselves known to him. Brahms recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who soon afterward commissioned what became the Slavonic Dances,  Op. 46. IMG_0371

These were highly praised by the Berlin music critic Louis Ehlert in 1878, the sheet music (of the original piano 4-hands version) had excellent sales, and Dvořák’s international reputation at last was launched.

Dvořák’s first piece of a religious nature, his setting of Stabat Mater, was premiered in Prague in 1880. It was very successfully performed in London in 1883, leading to many other performances in the United Kingdom and United States. In his career, Dvořák made nine invited visits to England, often conducting performances of his own works. His Seventh Symphony was written for London. After a brief conducting stint in Russia in 1890, Dvořák was appointed as a professor at the Prague Conservatory in 1891. In 1890-91, he wrote his Dumky Trio one of his most successful  chamber music pieces. In 1892, Dvořák moved to the United States and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.  While in the United States, Dvořák wrote his two most successful orchestral works. The Symphony From the New World spread his reputation worldwide. His Cello Concerto is one of the two or three most highly regarded of all cello concerti. Also, he wrote his American String Quartet, his most appreciated piece of chamber music. But shortfalls in payment of his salary, along with increasing recognition in Europe and an onset of homesickness, led him to leave the United States in 1895 and return to Bohemia.

Dvořák’s ten operas all have librettos in Czech and were intended to convey the Czech national spirit, as were some of his choral works. By far the most successful of the operas is Rusalka. Among his smaller works, “Songs my Mother Taught Me” is sung here on YouTube by Jeannette McDonald: 
IMG_0376and his Humoresque No 7 – heard here as a piano solo on a YouTube version: – is particularly famous; it is an infectious, whimsical piece, which is also familiar in transcriptions, and belongs to a set of eight compositions, Op. 101 (1884).

Because so many of his compositions, classic and light, are widely performed and recorded, he has been described as “arguably the most versatile… composer of his time.”

Sources: Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen;
Wikipedia; Azim’s Personal Notes.

It was on February 22, 2012, that Lolita and I spent quality time during our fortnight in the Czech capital, Prague, visiting the beautifully appointed  Dvořak Museum so full of the composer’s memorabilia and artifacts pertaining to his creative process. There were instruments and manuscripts galore, as well as black-and-white and sepia-toned photos of his trips abroad, especially to England and the USA. I took the pictures shown above of two of his published composition-covers, namely, Slavonic Dance and Humoresque.

Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas

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