Antonín Dvořák

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Antonín Leopold Dvořák ( [ˈantoɲiːn ˈlɛopolt ˈdvor̝aːk] ; September 8, 1841– May 1, 1904) was a Czech composer of Romantic music, who employed the idioms and melodies of the folk music of his native Bohemia in symphonic and chamber music.


Early career

Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, near Prague (then Austrian Empire, today the Czech Republic), where he spent most of his life. His father was a butcher, innkeeper, and professional player of the zither. Dvořák's parents recognized his musical talent early, and he received his earliest musical education at the village school which he entered in 1847, age 6. He studied music in Prague's only Organ School at the end of the 1850s, and gradually developed into an accomplished violinist and violist. Throughout the 1860s he played viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theatre Orchestra, which from 1866 was conducted by Bedřich Smetana. The need to supplement his income by teaching left Dvořák with limited free time, and in 1871 he gave up playing in the orchestra in order to compose. During this time, Dvořák fell in love with one of his pupils and wrote a song cycle, Cypress Trees, that expressed his anguish at her marriage to another man. However in 1873 he married his pupil's sister, Anna Čermakova. They had nine children.

At about this time Dvořák began to be recognized as a significant composer. He became organist at St. Adalbert's Church, Prague, and began a period of prolific composition. Dvořák composed his second string quintet in 1875, and in 1877, the critic Eduard Hanslick informed him that his music had attracted the attention of Johannes Brahms, whom he later befriended. Brahms contacted the musical publisher Simrock, who as a result commissioned Dvořák's Slavonic Dances. Published in 1878, these were an immediate success. Dvořák's Stabat Mater (1880) was performed abroad, and after a successful performance in London in 1883, Dvořák was invited to visit England where he appeared to great acclaim in 1884. His Symphony No. 7 was commissioned for London; it premiered there in 1885. In 1891 Dvořák received an honorary degree from Cambridge University, and his Requiem Mass premiered later that year in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival.

America (1892–1895)

From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, at a then-staggering $15,000 annual salary. The Conservatory had been founded by a wealthy and philanthropic socialite, Jeannette Thurber; it was located at 126-128 East 17th Street , but was demolished in 1911 and replaced by what is now a high school. Here Dvořák met with Harry Burleigh, one of the earliest African-American composers, although Burleigh was never his pupil. Burleigh introduced traditional American Spirituals to Dvořák at the latter's request.

In the winter and spring of 1893, while in New York, Dvořák wrote his most popular work, the Symphony No.9, "From the New World". He spent the summer of 1893 with his family in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, to which some of his cousins had earlier immigrated. While there he composed two of his most famous chamber works, the String Quartet in F (the "American"), and the String Quintet in E flat. In the same vein of American inspiration, he also wrote a Sonatina for violin and piano.

Over the course of three months in 1895, Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, which was to become one of his most popular works. However, problems with Mrs. Thurber about his salary, together with increasing recognition in Europe — he had been made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna — and homesickness made him decide to return to Bohemia. He left New York before the end of the spring term.

Dvořák's New York home was located at 327 East 17th Street near Perlman Place . It was in this home that the Ninth Symphony was written. Despite protests, from the then Czech President Václav Havel amongst others, who wanted the house preserved as a historical site, it was demolished to make room for a Beth Israel Medical Centre residence for people with AIDS. To honour Dvořák, however, a statue of him was erected in Stuyvesant Square .

Later career

During his final years, Dvořák's compositional work centred on opera and chamber music. In 1896 he visited London for the last time to hear the premiere of his Cello Concerto. In 1897 his daughter married his pupil, the composer Josef Suk. Dvořák was director of the Conservatory in Prague from 1901 until his death in 1904. He is interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague.

He left many unfinished works, including the early Cello Concerto in A major (see Concerti below).


Dvořák wrote in a variety of forms: his nine symphonies generally stick to classical models that Beethoven would have recognised, 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; perhaps the best known examples are the two sets of Slavonic Dances. Dvořák also wrote operas (the best known of which is Rusalka); chamber music (including a number of string quartets, and quintets); songs; choral music; and piano music.


While the majority of Dvořák's works were given opus numbers, these often bear little relationship to the order in which they were either written or published. To achieve better sales, some publishers such as Simrock preferred to present budding composers as being well established, by giving some relatively early works much higher opus numbers than their chronological order would merit. In other cases, the same opus number was given to more than one work. In yet other cases, a work was given as many as three different opus numbers by different publishers. This understandably led to a great deal of confusion, which was exacerbated by the facts that: (a) his symphonies were initially numbered by order of publication, not composition; (b) the first four symphonies to be composed were not published until after the last five were published; and (c) not all of the last five symphonies were published in order of composition. This explains why, for example, the New World Symphony was originally published as No.5, it was later known as No. 8, but is now referred to as No. 9.

To shed some light on this confusion, Dvořák's works were chronologically catalogued in 1960 by Jarmil Burghauser in Antonín Dvořák. Thematic Catalogue. Bibliography. Survey of Life and Work (Export Artia Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1960). Dvořák's works are now more generally known by their B numbers (for Burghauser) than their opus numbers. In this catalogue, for example, the New World Symphony, Op. 95 is B.178.


During Dvořák’s life only five symphonies were widely known. The first published was the 6th, dedicated to Hans Richter. After Dvořák’s death, research uncovered four unpublished symphonies, of which the manuscript of the first had even been lost to the composer himself. This led to an unclear situation in which the "New World" symphony has alternately been called the 5th, 8th and 9th. This article uses the modern numbering system, according to the order in which they were written.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor was written when Dvořák was only 24 years old. Later subtitled The Bells of Zlonice after a village in Dvořák's native Bohemia, it shows inexperience but also genius with its many attractive qualities. It has many formal similarities with Beethoven's 5th Symphony (for example, the movements follow the same keys: C minor, A flat major, C minor, C major), yet in harmony and instrumentation, Dvořák's First follows the style of Franz Schubert. (Some material from this symphony was reused in the Silhouettes, Opus 8, for piano solo.)

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 4, still takes Beethoven as a model, though this time in a brighter, more pastoral light.

Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 10, clearly shows the sudden and profound impact of Dvořák's recent acquaintance with the music of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. (A portion of the slow movement was reused in the sixth of the Legends, Opus 59, for piano duet or orchestra.) There is no scherzo.

Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 13, still shows a strong influence of Wagner, particularly the second movement, which is reminiscent of the overture to Tannhauser. In contrast, the scherzo is strongly Czech in character.

Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76, and Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60, are largely pastoral in nature, and brush away nearly all the last traces of Wagnerian style. The Fifth has a dark slow movement that seems to quote Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto for its main theme. The Sixth shows a very strong resemblance to the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms, particularly in the outer movements, though this similarity is belied by the third-movement furiant, a vivid Czech dance.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor of 1885, Op. 70, is sometimes reckoned to exhibit more formal tautness and greater intensity than the more famous 9th Symphony. There is emotional torment in the Seventh that may reflect personal troubles: around this time, Dvořák was struggling to have his Czech operas accepted in Vienna, feeling pressure to write operas in German, and arguing with his publisher. His sketches show that the Seventh cost him much hard work and soul-searching.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88, is, in contrast with the 7th, characterised by a warmer and more optimistic tone. Karl Schumann (in booklet notes for a recording of all the symphonies by Rafael Kubelík) compares it to the works of Gustav Mahler. As with the 7th, some feel the 8th is the best of the symphonies. That some critics feel it necessary to promote a symphony as "better than the 9th" shows how the immense popularity of the 9th has overshadowed the earlier works.

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, may be better known by its subtitle, From the New World, and is also called the New World Symphony. It written between January and May 1893, while Dvořák was in New York. At the time of its first performance, he claimed that he used elements from American music such as Spirituals and Native American music in this work, but he later denied this. The first movement has a solo flute passage reminiscent of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and one of his students later reported that the second movement depicted, programmatically, the sobbing of Hiawatha. The second movement was so reminiscent of a negro spiritual that William Arms Fisher wrote lyrics for it and called it Goin' Home. Dvořák was interested in indigenous American music, but in an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, he wrote "[In the 9th symphony] I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music."

Complete cycles of these symphonies have been recorded under conductors such as István Kertész, Rafael Kubelík, Otmar Suitner, Libor Pešek, Václav Neumann and Neeme Järvi.


Music critic Harold Schonberg expressed common critical opinion when he wrote that Dvořák wrote "an attractive Piano Concerto in G minor with a rather ineffective piano part, a beautiful Violin Concerto in A minor, and a supreme Cello Concerto in B minor" (The Lives of the Great Composers, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, revised edition, 1980). All the concertos are in the classical three movement form.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G minor, Op. 33 was the first of three concertos that Dvořák composed and orchestrated, and it is perhaps the least known of those three. Dvořák composed his piano concerto from late August through September 14, 1876. Its autograph version contains many corrections, erasures, cuts and additions, the bulk of these made in the piano part. The work was premiered in Prague on March 24, 1878, with the orchestra of the Prague Provisional Theatre conducted by Adolf Cech, and the Czech pianist Karel Slavkovsky as soloist. As Dvořák wrote: "I see I am unable to write a Concerto for a virtuoso; I must think of other things." Instead, what Dvořák thought of and created was a concerto with remarkable symphonic values in which the piano plays a leading part in the orchestra rather than opposed to it. The Czech pianist and piano teacher Professor Vilém Kurz subsequently wrote an alternative, somewhat more virtuosic piano part for the concerto, which may, depending on the performer's preference, be played either partially or entirely in lieu of Dvořák's part. In 1919 concert pianist Ilona Kurzová played the first performance of the Kurz version, conducted by Václav Talich.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 53 was the second of the three concertos that Dvořák composed and orchestrated. He had met the great violinist Joseph Joachim in 1878 and decided to write a concerto for him. He finished it in 1879, but Joachim was skeptical of the work. He was a strict classicist and objected to Dvořák's inter alia or his abrupt truncation of the first movement's orchestral tutti, and he also did not like that the recapitulation was similarly cut short and that it led directly to the slow movement. He never actually played the piece. The concerto was premiered in 1883 in Prague by the violinist František Ondříček, who subsequently performed it in its debuts in Vienna and London. The second (slow) movement is especially celebrated for its lyricism.

The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104 was the last composed of Dvořák's concertos. He wrote it in 1894-1895 for his friend, the cellist Hanuš Wihan. Wihan and others had asked for a cello concerto for some time, but Dvořák always refused, stating that the cello was a fine orchestral instrument but totally insufficient for a solo concerto.

Dvořák composed the concerto in New York while serving as the Director of the National Conservatory. In 1894 Victor Herbert, who was also teaching at the Conservatory, had written a cello concerto and presented it in a series of concerts. Dvořák attended at least two performances of Victor Herbert's cello concerto and was inspired to fulfill Wihan's request for a cello concerto. Dvořák's concerto received its premiere in London on March 16, 1896, with the English cellist Leo Stern. The work was well received. Brahms said of the work: "Had I known that one could write a cello concerto like this, I would have written one long ago!"

Over thirty years earlier in 1865, Dvořák had composed a Cello Concerto in A Major, but with accompaniment by piano rather than orchestra. It is believed Dvořák had intended to orchestrate it, but abandoned it. It was orchestrated by the German composer Günter Raphael between 1925 and 1929, and again by his cataloguer Jarmil Burghauser and published in this form in 1952 as B.10.

Chamber music

Dvořák composed fourteen string quartets, the most popular being the 12th, the 'American', Op. 96. He also composed two piano quintets, of which the 2nd, Op. 81, is better known. He left three string quintets, a terzetto for two violins and viola, and four piano trios, including the "Dumky", Op. 90.


Dvořák’s critical acclaim as a composer of symphonies and concertos gave him a strong desire to write opera. Of all his operas, only Rusalka, Op. 114, and, to a much lesser extent, Kate and the Devil, Op. 112, are played on contemporary opera stages with any frequency outside the Czech Republic. This is due to their uneven invention, their inadequate libretti, and perhaps also their staging requirements — The Jacobin, Armida, Wanda and Dimitrij need stages large enough to portray invading armies.

There is speculation by Dvorak scholars such as Michael Beckerman that portions of his Symphony No. 9 "From the New World", notably the second movement, were adapted from studies for a never-written opera about Pocahontas.

The German-born conductor Gerd Albrecht has recorded many of Dvořák’s operas on the Orfeo and Supraphon labels.

Notable students of Dvořák

  • Vítězslav Novák
  • Josef Suk
  • Will Marion Cook
  • William Arms Fisher

Dvořák's music in popular culture

  • The American National Football League has repeatedly used part of his Symphony 9 (Allegro Con Fuoco) as a "comeback" theme in the soundtracks of a number of their documentaries.
  • The main theme of the slow movement of the symphony became famous in Britain as the background to a TV advertisement (directed by Ridley Scott) for Hovis bread.
  • An extract of Dvorak's piece Humoresque was used as the theme tune for the Slappy Squirrel segments on Animaniacs.
  • Movement 4 of Dvorak's New World Symphony is played in the background at the climax of the duel between Monkey D. Luffy and Sir Crocodile in the anime One Piece.
  • Neil Armstrong took a recording of the 'New World' symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969.
  • During US President Ford's funeral excerpts from the 'New World' were played several times.

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