Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Antonin Dvorak

Antonín Leopold Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer of classical music.

Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves near Prague where he spent most of his life. He studied music in Prague's Organ School at the end of the 1850s, and through the 1860s played viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theatre Orchestra which was from 1866 conducted by Bedrich Smetana.

From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was director of the National Conservatory in New York City, and it was during his visit to the United States that he wrote his most popular work, the Symphony No.9 "From the New World.

Also while in the USA he heard a performance of a cello concerto by the composer Victor Herbert. He was so excited by the possibilities of the cello and orchestra combination displayed in this concerto that he wrote a cello concerto of his own, the Cello Concerto in B minor (1895). Since then the concerto he wrote has grown in popularity and today it is frequently performed. He also left an unfinished work, the Cello Concerto in A major (1865), which was completed and orchestrated by the German composer Günter Raphael between 1925 and 1929.

Dvořák eventually returned to Prague where he was director of the conservatoire from 1901 until his death in 1904.

Dvořák's works are in a variety of forms: his nine symphonies stick to classical models which Ludwig van Beethoven would have recognised and are comparable to Johannes Brahms, but he also worked in the newly developed symphonic poem form and the influence of Richard Wagner is apparent in some works. Many of his works also show the influence of Czech folk music, both in terms of rhythms and melodic shapes. As well as his already-mentioned works, Dvořák wrote operas (the best known of which is Rusalka), chamber music (including a number of string quartets, the American among them) and piano music.

Dvorak's works were catalogued by Jarmil Burghauser in Antonin Dvorák. Thematic Catalogue. Bibliography. Survey of Life and Work (Export Artia Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1960). In this catalogue, for example, the New World Symphony (Opus 95) is B178.

Dvořák's Symphonies

For a while, the numbering of Dvořák's symphonies was rather unclear; the "New World" symphony has alternately been called the 5th, 8th and 9th. In this article they are numbered according to the order in which they were written (this is the normal numbering system used today).

Unlike many other composers who shied away from the symphony until their mature years (notably his mentor Johannes Brahms), Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor when he was only 24 years of age. Subtitled The Bells of Zlonice after a village in Dvořák's native Bohemia, it is clearly the work of an inexperienced composer, yet shows a lot of promise. The scherzo is considered to be the strongest movement, but the others are not uninteresting. There are many formal similarities with the 5th Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, yet harmonically and in his instrumentation he is more a romantic composer, following Franz Schubert.

Not very remarkable, but not of low quality either, is Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, still looking up to Beethoven. But Symphony No. 3 in E flat major clearly shows the sudden and profound impact of Dvořák's recent acquaintance with the music of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.

The influence of Wagner was not lasting, however; it can hardly be heard anymore in Symphony No. 4 in D minor. This last of Dvořák's early symphonies is also widely regarded as the best. Again the scherzo is the highlight, but already Dvořák shows his absolute mastery of all formal aspects.

Dvořák's middle symphonies, Symphony No. 5 in F major (published as No. 3) and Symphony No. 6 in D major (published as No. 1), are happy, pastoral works. They are not as famous as their later cousins.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor (published as No. 2) is an emotionally turbulent work, certainly the most typically romantic symphony Dvořák wrote, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. There could hardly be a starker contrast to Symphony No. 8 in G major (published as No. 4), a work which Karl Schumann (in booklet notes to a recording of all the symphonies by Rafael Kubelik) compares to Gustav Mahler. Together with his last symphony, these two are regarded as the peak of Dvorak's symphonic writing and among the finest symphonies of the 19th century.

By far the most popular, however, is Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, better known under its subtitle, From the New World. This was written shortly after Dvořák's arrival in America. It is sometimes said that Dvorak used elements from American music such as Spirituals and Native American music in this work, but Dvorak denied this. He was interested in these musics, but in an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, he wrote "I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music". Despite this, it is generally considered that the work has more in common with the folk music of Dvorak's native Bohemia than with American music.

Two of the most highly regarded recordings of these symphonies are the cycles by Rafael Kubelik and Libor Pešek.

Further reading