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Category: Musician or composer

Dvořák with Anna

Antonín Leopold Dvořák (1841 – 1904) was a Czech composer. His music is marvellously musical, and lyrical, but it is also highly emotional, there is great intensity in practically all his works. Dvořák's main compositions are a celebration of his love of his country, his roots, his fellow Czechs and his culture.

The "Slavic period" in Dvořák's work was directly influenced by the political situation in Bohemia. The Czech countries were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and there was a strong national liberation movement.

Dvořák used Slavic folk music in his compositions to show support.

In the third movement of his String Quartet in D major, for example, he uses as the main theme, the melody of the patriotic song Hej, Slované (Hey, Slavs), which was at that time banned by the Austrian authorities and whose public singing and performances were severely punished.

As the basis for his works, Dvořák frequently used folk dance forms, such as the odzemek, furiant, mazurka, polonaise or Serbian Kolo, and also the folk songs of Slavic peoples, such as the dumka. The influence is most significantly apparent in his Slavonic Dances, Three Slavonic Rhapsodies (1878), orchestral Polonaise (1879), Quartet in E flat major (1879, nicknamed "Slavonic"), Symphony in D major and the opera Dimitrij (1882). Rather intriguingly, Dvořák also found a style that greatly appealed to him in African-American and Native American music. Dvořák was particularly struck by traditional American spirituals, which leads us rather neatly on to his spirituality.

Little is ever written about his spiritual leanings. He was christened a Roman Catholic and everyone assumes that that is what he was. But they would be wrong; underpinning Dvořák's love of his fellow countrymen was a deeply spiritual life and understanding. Let us look at Dvořák's symphonic poems (tone poems). They are among his most original symphonic works, and what are they called? The Water Goblin, Op. 107; The Noon Witch, Op. 108; The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109; The Wild Dove, Op. 110; and A Hero's Song, Op. 111. A Hero's Song is based on a program of Dvorák's devising and is believed to be autobiographical. He was on the spiritual path.

Dvořák was incapable of being creative when poverty stricken. At the time that he had problems with his finances, his composing was not that successful. His first composing attempts passed without critical reception or public performances. Some of his early works were even sent back to him as 'unperformable'. But once Dvořák secured the job of organist at St. Adalbert's Church in Prague, providing him with financial security, higher social status, and enough free time to focus on composing, his output and its quality soared [Reducing threats]. Once he had secured a safe secure income, he wrote the Symphonic Variations, Symphony No. 6 (1880), and the Slavonic Dances, opp. 46 and 72 (1878 and 1886). 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. In the winter and spring of 1893, Dvořák composed his Symphony No.9, "From the New World". So being secure helped him, it bought him time and peace of mind.

Underpinning all his career, is a very complex love life.


He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Čermáková, for whom he apparently composed the song cycle "Cypress Trees". He also later wrote a set of twelve love songs arranged for quartet, taken from a set of 18 songs that he originally composed in 1865. These are beautiful, truly beautiful. Soft, gentle, he was really in LOVE. However, this has a very sad side; she never returned his love and ended up marrying another man.

Around this time, 1870, Dvořák created some of his most important works , such as the opera Alfred and string quartets in B flat major, E minor and D major. There may here be just the seeds of unrequited love. I think she may have also been behind one of his most famous and truly inspired works, but it is a work inspired by grief. The choice of instrument is significant – the cello.

Josefina died on May 27, 1895.

Over the course of three months in 1895, Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor. Brahms said of the work: "Had I known that one could write a cello concerto like this, I would have written one long ago!"


But as I said, his life was complex. In 1873 Dvořák married Josefina's younger sister, Anna Čermáková. I'm sure psychoanalysts would have a field day on this event. But it provided him with a stable family life, the chance to see Josefina, and children, whom he greatly loved. He and Anna had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy. So happiness, marred again by grief. The Stabat Mater, is a vocal-instrumental sacred work for soli (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), choir and his 'inspiration' for creating this piece was the death of his daughter, Josefa [notice the name]. 

But his inspiration was not all grief. Dvořák composed his second string quintet in 1875, the same year that his first son was born. It was during this year that he produced a multitude of works, including his 5th Symphony, String Quintet No. 2, Piano Trio No. 1 and Serenade for Strings in E. This is LOVE, pure love of children and family.

with his family and friends

Dvořák also seems to be a person who was inspired by a sense of place and belonging. And being loved. The Royal Philharmonic Society of London, for example, commissioned Dvořák to conduct concerts in London, and his performances were very well received there. In response to the commission, Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 7. Dvořák visited England nine times in total. In 1891, Dvořák composed his Eighth Symphony. His Requiem was premiered later that year. He was welcomed, he was greatly appreciated and so he grew under this patronage and 'love'. In contrast, despite the huge amount of money he was being paid, Dvořák was not happy in America. 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 in an attempt to feel at home there. While there he composed the String Quartet in F (the "American"), and the String Quintet in E flat, as well as a Sonatina for violin and piano, but in the end a huge amount of homesickness made him decide to return to Bohemia.

During his final years, and after Josefina's death, he concentrated on composing opera and chamber music. Between 1895 to 1897, he completed his string quartets in A-flat major and G major. These are not jolly folksy little ditties, they are very emotional highly charged works with great depth and beauty. In his last artistic period (from 1898 to 1904), he focused mainly on opera, which is extraordinarily telling as opera is the ultimate expression of passion and dramatic intensity. He created some of his most valuable operatic works, such as The Devil and Kate (1898/99), Rusalka (1900) and Armida (1902/3).

In 1896 he visited London for the last time to hear the premiere of his Cello Concerto in B minor.

His 60th birthday was celebrated as a national event, with concerts and a banquet organized in his honour. His final performance as conductor with the Czech Philharmonic took place on April 4, 1900. Due to illness, he missed the performances of his oratorio Saint Ludmila, the violin concerto (solo part played by František Ondříček), and the New World Symphony at the 'First Czech Music Festival' held in April 1904 in Prague.

Dvořák died from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness, at the age of 63, leaving many unfinished works. Heart problems are often a sign of grief, a true broken heart. Perhaps to the very end he held Josefina in his heart.


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