Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák (Antonín Leopold Dvořák) was the first Czech composer to achieve worldwide recognition. Many of his works have widespread popularity as representative and beloved examples of Romantic music by performers and audiences alike.

Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves, a Bohemian (now Czech) village on the Vltava River north of Prague. He came to know music early, and Czech folklore from an early age. He played violin and viola, taught music, and participated in amateur instrumental ensembles. Later he worked as an organist.

His first public performances were when he was 30 years old. Supported by Bedřich Smetana, 17 years his senior, Dvořák created a voluminous oeuvre in all genres: 9 operas, choral sacred music, 9 symphonies, chamber music, piano pieces, etc. With the exception of the first, the rest of his nine operas are based on Czech subjects. Among them, his opera Rusalka is the best known.

Seeking recognition beyond the Prague area, he submitted a score of his First Symphony to a prize competition in Germany, but did not win, and the unreturned manuscript was lost until rediscovered many decades later. In 1874, he made a submission to the Austrian State Prize for Composition, including scores of two further symphonies and other works.  Johannes Brahms was the leading member of the jury and was highly impressed. The prize was awarded to Dvořák in 1874 and again in 1876 and in 1877. And with the printing of his Slavonic Dances Op. 64 by Brahms’s publisher Fritz Simrock in 1878 and their orchestral performance, his name gained international fame.

The two concerts in Moscow in 1890, organised by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, were a huge personal success for Dvořák. The following year he became an honorary doctor of music of Cambridge University.

Of Dvořák’s nine symphonies, his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World” has established itself as an emblematic work for the composer. In 1892, Dvořák moved to the United States and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. There he wrote his famous Cello Concerto and the American Quartet. Shortfalls in payment of his salary, along with increasing recognition in Europe and an onset of homesickness, led him to return to Bohemia in 1895.

In the last decade of his life, Dvořák composed mainly operas and chamber music. In 1896 he visited London for the last time to conduct the premiere of his Cello Concerto in B minor by the London Philharmonic. Dvořák worked as director of the Prague Conservatory from November 1901 until his death. Dvořák’s 60th  birthday was celebrated as a national event. After a short illness he died in Prague in 1904 of heart failure.

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