Nelahozeves 1841 – Prague 1904
The later 19th century brought an increasing consciousness of national identity to various ethnic groups in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Dvorák, born in a Bohemian village, where his father was an inn-keeper and butcher, followed Smetana as the leading exponent of Czech musical nationalism, firmly within the classical traditions of Central Europe. His early musical training was followed by employment for some years as a violist, for a time under Smetana, and then, with the positive encouragement of Brahms, by a life primarily devoted to composition. Dvorák won recognition abroad and rather more grudging acceptance in Vienna. Between 1892 and 1895 he spent some time in the United States of America as director of the new National Conservatory, a period that brought compositions that combine American and Bohemian influence. At home again he was much honoured, resisting invitations from Brahms to move to Vienna in favour of a simple life in his own country. He died in 1904, shortly after the first performances of his last opera, Armida.
Dvorák wrote nine symphonies, of which the best known must be the Symphony No. 9, From the New World, written in 1893 and first performed in New York in the same year. This New World Symphony derived some inspiration from a Czech translation of Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha. Works for solo instrument and orchestra by Dvorák include an important Cello Concerto, a Violin Concerto and a slightly less well known Piano Concerto. The Romance for solo violin and orchestra, and Silent Woods for cello and orchestra, make interesting and attractive additions to solo repertoire for both instruments. Other Orchestral music include two sets of Slavonic Dances, arrangements of works originally designed for piano duet, and three Slavonic Rhapsodies. Overtures include My Home, In Nature’s Realm, Othello, Hussite and Carnival. To this one may add the Scherzo capriccioso of 1883, a Polonaise, written four years before, and the splendid Serenade for Strings of 1875. The Symphonic Variations meet the challenge of an apparently intractable theme and the ten Legends were orchestrated by the composer from his original piano duet version. To this may be added the symphonic poems The Noonday Witch, The Golden Spinning-Wheel and The Wild Dove, works that seem to explore new ground, with their narrative content.
Dvorák left fourteen string quartets, of which the best known is the so-called American Quartet, No. 12 in F Major, written in 1893, the year of the Symphony from the New World. The composition of Quartets Nos. 13 and 14, in 1895, seems to have taken place over the same period. From the American period comes the G major Sonatina for violin and piano, its second movement sometimes known as Indian Lament. Of the four surviving piano trios the fourth, nick-named the Dumky because of its use of a Bohemian national dance-form, is the best known, closely rivalled in popularity by the third. Dvorák’s quintets for piano and strings or strings alone offer further pleasure, with the String Sextet and the charming Terzetto for two violins and viola.
The best known of all the pieces Dvorák wrote for the piano must be the Humoresque in G flat major, the seventh of a set of eight. Close to this come the two sets of Slavonic Dances for piano duet.
Dvorák wrote nine operas, the first in 1870 and the last completed and staged in 1903. Rusalka, first produced in 1900, provides a well known concert aria, O silver moon.
Dvorák wrote a number of songs and a popular set of Moravian Duets for soprano and contralto. The most popular of the songs is the fourth of Seven Gypsy Songs, Op. 55, Songs my mother taught me.