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A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Dvořák, Antonín

DVOŘÁK,[1] Antonín, born Sept. 8, 1841, at Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves) near Kralup in Bohemia. His father, Franz Dvořák, the butcher and innkeeper of the place, destined him for the first of these trades. The bands of itinerant musicians who used to come round on great occasions and play in the inn, roused his musical ambition, and he got the village schoolmaster to teach him to sing and play the violin. His progress was so remarkable that before long he was promoted to singing occasional solos in church, and to playing the violin on holidays. During one such performance, in Passion tide, he broke down from nervousness. In 1853 his father sent him to a better school at Zlonitz, putting him under the care of an uncle. Here his musical studies were superintended by the organist, A. Liehmann, who taught him the organ and pianoforte, as well as a certain amount of theory, such as would enable him to play from a figured bass, modulate, or extemporize with moderate success. Two years afterwards he was sent to learn German, and so to finish his education, at Kamnitz, where the organist Hancke taught him for a year, after which he returned to Zlonitz, his father having in the meanwhile removed there. He prepared a surprise for his relations in the shape of an original composition, a polka, which he arranged to have performed on some festive occasion. The musicians started, but a series of the most frightful discords arose, and the poor composer realised too late the fact that he had written the parts for the transposing instruments as they were to sound, instead of writing them as they were to be played! By this time his intense desire to devote himself to music rather than to the modest career marked out for him by his father, could no longer be disguised, but it was not until many months had been spent in discussions, in which the cause of art was materially helped by the organist, who foresaw a brilliant future for his pupil, that the father's objections were overcome, and permission given for Anton to go to Prague and study music, in the hope of getting an organist's appointment. In Oct. 1857 he went to the capital and entered the organ school supported by the 'Gesellschaft der Kirchenmusik in Böhmen.' At the beginning of the three years' course he received a modest allowance from his father, but even this ceased after a short time, and the boy—for he was little more—was thrown on his own resources. His violin-playing came in most usefully at this time, and indeed without it it is difficult to see how he could have kept himself alive. He joined one of the town-bands as viola-player, and for some three years lived upon the meagre earnings obtained in cafés and other places of the same kind. When a Bohemian theatre was opened in Prague in 1862, the band to which he belonged was employed to provide the occasional music, and when that institution was established on a firm basis, as the National Theatre, Dvořák, with some others of his companions, was chosen a member of the orchestra. While here he benefited by his intercourse with Smetana, who held the post of conductor from 1866 to 1874. A kind friend was found in Carl Bendl, a native of Prague, who after holding important musical posts at Brussels and Amsterdam, had returned in 1866 to Prague as conductor of a choral society, and who gave Dvořák every opportunity in his power of becoming acquainted with the masterpieces of art. His own resources were of course not sufficient to allow him to buy scores, and the possession of a piano of his own was not to be thought of. In spite of these drawbacks, he worked on steadily at composition, experimenting in almost every form of music. As early as 1862 he had written a string quintet; by 1865 two symphonies were completed; about this time a grand opera on the subject of Alfred was composed to a German libretto, and many songs were written. The most ambitious of these efforts were afterwards committed to the flames by their author. In 1873 he was appointed organist of St. Adalbert's church in Prague, a stroke of good fortune which allowed him not only to give up his orchestral engagement, but to take to himself a wife. He increased his scanty salary by taking private pupils, but as yet his circumstances were exceedingly humble.

It was in this, his 32nd year, that he first came before the public as a composer, with the patriotic cantata or hymn, written to words by Hálek, 'Die Erben des weissen Berges' (The heirs of the white mountain). The subject was happily chosen, and the spontaneous and thoroughly national character of the music ensured its success. In the same year one of two Notturnos for orchestra was performed, and in 1874 an entire symphony in E♭, and a scherzo from a symphony in D minor were given. Neither of these symphonies appear in his list of works; they were not the same as the two earlier compositions, which were in B♭ and E minor respectively. By this time the composer had begun to make a name for himself, and the authorities of the National Theatre resolved to produce an opera by him. When 'Der König und der Köhler' ('The King and the Collier') was put into rehearsal, however, it turned out to be quite impracticable, owing to the wildly unconventional style of the music, and the composer actually had the courage to rewrite it altogether, preserving scarcely a note of the original score. In this form it was successfully produced, and, the rumour of his powers and of the scantiness of his resources reaching Vienna, he received in the following year a pension of about £50 per annum from the Kultusministerium. This stipend, increased in the following year, was the indirect means of procuring him the friendship and encouragement of Johannes Brahms, who, on Herbeck's death iu 1877, was appointed to succeed him on a commission formed for examining the compositions of the recipients of this grant. In this way the delightful collection of duets, called 'Klange aus Mahren,' came before the Viennese composer, and it is not to be wondered at that he discerned in them all the possibilities that lay before their author. A wonderfully happy use of national characteristics is the most attractive feature of these duets, and a good opportunity for again displaying his knowledge of these peculiarities was soon given him; he received a commission from Simrock the publisher to write a series of 'Slavische Tänze' for pianoforte duet. The work, completed in 1878, had almost as great a success as the Hungarian dances of Brahms, published several years before. The wide popularity which the dances rapidly attained in all parts of Germany led, as was only natural, to the publication of compositions of every form, which the composer had almost despaired of ever seeing in print. It was now evident to all musicians that a new and fully developed composer had arisen, not a mere student whose progress from lighter to more elaborate forms could be watched and discussed, but a master whose style was completely formed, and whose individuality had, in its development, escaped all the trammels of convention. His long experience of orchestras had served him well, and had given him a feeling for instrumental colouring such as has been acquired by very few even of those composers whose education has been most complete. But though musical culture and the constant intercourse with artists and critics undoubtedly tend to crush distinctive originality, they have their advantages too, and a composer who wishes to employ the classical forms with ease and certainty will hardly be able to dispense with these necessary evils. In judging of Dvořák's works, it must always be remembered that a large amount of his chamber music was written without any immediate prospect of a public performance, and without receiving any alterations such as judicious criticism might have suggested.

Since the publication of the 'Slavische Tanze,' the composer has been in the happy position of the country which has no history, or rather his history is to be read in his works, not in any biography. Of late years England has played an important part in his career. Since the dances above referred to were arranged for orchestra, and played at the Crystal Palace (on Feb. 15, 1879) his name has become gradually more and more prominent, and it cannot be said that the English musical world has been remiss in regard to this composer, whatever may be our shortcomings in some other respects. An especial meed of praise is due to an amateur association, the London Musical Society, which on March 10, 1883, introduced to the metropolis his setting of the 'Stabat Mater,' composed as early as 1876, though not published till 1881. Public attention was at once aroused by the extraordinary beauty and individuality of the music, and the composer was invited to conduct a performance of the work at the Albert Hall, which took place on March 13. In the autumn of 1884 he was again asked to conduct it at the Worcester Festival, and at the same time received a commission from the authorities to write a short cantata for the next year's Birmingham Festival. This resulted in the composition of 'The Spectre's Bride,' to a Bohemian version by K. J. Erben of the familiar 'Lenore' legend, which, although it was presented in a very inadequate translation of a German version, obtained a success as remarkable as it was well-deserved, carrying off the chief honours of the festival. This, as well as an oratorio on the subject of St. Ludmila, written for the Leeds Festival of 1886, was conducted by the composer himself.

This is not the place for a detailed criticism of Dvořák's works, nor can we attempt to foretell what position his name will ultimately occupy among the composers of our time; it may however be permitted to draw attention to the more striking characteristics of his music. An inexhaustible wealth of melodic invention and a rich variety of colouring are the qualities which most attract us, together with a certain unexpectedness, from which none of his works are wholly free. The imaginative faculty is very strongly developed, so that he is at his best when treating subjects in which the romantic element is prominent. It must be admitted that his works in the regular classical forms are the least favourable specimens of his powers. When we consider the bent of his nature and the circumstances of his early life, this is not to be wondered at; the only wonder is that his concerted compositions should be as numerous and as successful as they are. As a rule, the interest of those movements in which an adherence to strict form is necessary, is kept up, not so much by ingenious developments and new presentments of the themes, as by the copious employment of new episodes, the relationship of which to the principal subjects of the movement is of the slightest. But in spite of these technical departures from time-honoured custom, the most stern purist cannot refuse to yield to the influence of the fresh charm with which the composer invests his ideas, and in most of his slow movements and scherzos there is no room for cavil. These two important sections of the sonata or symphony form have been materially enriched by Dvořák in the introduction and employment of two Bohemian musical forms, that of the 'Dumka' or elegy, and the 'Furiant,' a kind of wild scherzo. Both these forms, altogether new to classical music, have been used by him in chamber music and symphonies, and also separately, as in op. 12, op. 35, and op. 42. To his orchestral works the slight censure passed upon his chamber compositions does not apply. In his symphonies and other works in this class, the continual variety and ingenuity of his instrumentation more than make up for any such deficiencies as we have referred to in the treatment of the themes themselves, while his mastery of effect compels our admiration at every turn. Beside the three symphonies, op. 24,[2]60, and 70, and the overtures which belong to his operas, we may mention a set of 'Symphonic Variations' (op. 40), a 'Scherzo capriccioso' (op. 66), and the overtures 'Mein Heim' (op. 62) and 'Husitska' (op. 67), both written on themes from Bohemian volkslieder.

Although in such works as the concerto op. 33, the pianoforte quartet in D, op. 23, and the three trios, op. 21, 26, and 65, Dvořák has given evidence of a thorough knowledge of pianoforte effect, his works for that instrument alone form the smallest and least important class of his compositions, and it cannot be denied that though the waltzes and mazurkas contain much that is piquant and exceedingly original, his contributions to pianoforte music are by no means representative.

His songs belong for the most part to the earlier period of his career, but considering the extraordinary success attained by the 'Zigeunerlieder' on their publication, it is surprising that the other songs are not more frequently heard. These 'gipsy songs' show the composer at his best, uniting as they do great effectiveness with tender and irresistible pathos. His use of gipsy rhythms and intervals is also most happy.

In his operas, if we may judge from those of which the vocal scores are published, his lighter mood is most prominent. 'Der Bauer ein Schelrn.' ('The Peasant a Rogue') is full of vivacity and charm, and contains many excellent ensembles. Both in this and in 'Die Dickschädel' ('The obstinate daughter,' literally 'The Thickhead') his love for piquant rhythm is constantly perceptible, and both bear a strong affinity in style to the 'Klänge aus Mähren' duets.

None of his earlier works for chorus gave promise of what was to come in the 'Stabat Mater.' The 'Heirs of the White Mountain' is melodious, and contains passages of great vigour, and the 'local colour,' though by no means prominent, is skilfully used; but even those musicians who knew his previous compositions can scarcely have expected his setting of the Latin hymn to be full of the highest qualities which can be brought into requisition. Perhaps the most striking feature of his work is the perfect sympathy of its character with that of the words. The Bohemian composer has not only thrown off all trace of his own nationality, but has adopted a style which makes it difficult to believe him not to have studied the best Italian models for a lifetime before setting pen to paper. We do not mean for a moment to hint at any want of originality, for here, as elsewhere, the composer is indebted to no one for any part of his ideas. But in such numbers as the 'Inflammatus' and others the Italian influence is quite unmistakable. It has been well remarked that he treats the hymn from the point of view of 'absolute music'; that is to say, that he dwells, not so much upon the meaning or dramatic force of each verse or idea, as upon the general emotion of the whole. It is this, no doubt, which leads him into an apparent disregard of the order and connection of the words of the hymn, though a more commonplace reason, must, we fear, be assigned for the not infrequent false quantities in the setting of the Latin verse. These errors in detail serve to remind us of the deficiencies in Dvořák's early training, and to increase our admiration for the genius of a composer, who, in spite of so many drawbacks, has succeeded, more perfectly than any other modern writer, in reflecting the spirit of the ancient hymn.

In 'The Spectre's Bride' the composer has reached an even higher point, and given the world a masterpiece which is not unworthy to stand beside those most weird of musical creations, the Erlkönig and the Fliegende Holländer. The sustained interest of the narrator's part, more especially after the climax of the story has been reached, the ingenuity with which the difficulty of the thrice recurring dialogue between the lovers has been overcome, the moderation in the use of those national characteristics which we have mentioned above, so that their full beauty and force are brought into the most striking prominence; these are some of the features which make it one of the most remarkable compositions of our time, to say nothing of the beauty and power of the music itself, or of the richness of the orchestral colouring. It must be felt that the man who could create such a work as this has everything within his grasp, and the assertion that no subsequent composition is likely to equal 'The Spectre's Bride' in beauty or originality would be premature, though it is difficult to refrain from making it.

In the longest and most recent of his works, the oratorio of 'St. Ludmila,' it is evident that the tastes and prejudices of the English public were kept too constantly in mind by the composer. A large proportion of the numbers produce the effect of having been written immediately after a diligent study of the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn. We do not mean to accuse Dvořák of conscious or direct plagiarism, but it cannot be denied that the freedom and originality which give so great a charm to all his other works are here, if not wholly absent, at least not nearly as conspicuous as they are elsewhere. In the heathen choruses of the first part the individuality of the composer is felt, and at intervals in the later divisions of the work his hand can be traced, but on the whole, it must be confessed that 'St. Ludmila,' even as it was presented at Leeds, by executants all of whom were absolutely perfect in their various offices, and under the composer's own direction, proved extremely monotonous.

There is no reasonable cause for doubting that the composer will soon again give us a work worthy of ranking with the 'Stabat Mater' or 'The Spectre's Bride.' Meanwhile, it seems somewhat strange that none of his operas should have seen the light in England, where the vogue of his compositions has been so remarkable. Of his five operas, only 'Der Bauer ein Schelm' has as yet been heard elsewhere than in Prague, having been given at Dresden and Hamburg.

The following is as complete a list of Dvorak's works as can be made at the present time; the lacunæ in the series of opus-numbers will possibly be filled up in the future by some of the earlier compositions which have not yet been published:—

  2. Four Songs.
  3. Four Songs.
  4. Die Erben des weissen Berges.[3] Patriotic Hymn for mixed chorus, to words by Hálek.
  5. Das Waisenkind. Ballad for Voice and PF.
  6. Four Serbian Songs.
  7. Four Bohemian Songs.
  8. Silhouetten for PF.
  9. Four Songs.
11. Romance for Violin and Orchestra.
12. Furiant and Dumka for PF.
15. Ballade for Violin and PF.
16. String Quartet in A minor.
17. Six Songs.
18. String Quintet in G.
19. Three Latin Hymns for Voice and Organ.
20. Four vocal Duets.
21. Trio in B♭ for PF. and Strings.
22. Serenade in E for Stringed Orchestra.
23. Quartet in D for PF. and Strings.
24. Symphony in F (also called op. 76).
25. Overture to ' Wanda.'
26. Trio in G minor for PF. and Strings.
27. String Quartet in E major.
28. Hymne der Böhmische Landleute, for mixed Chorus with 4-hand accompaniment.
29. Six Choruses tor mixed Voices.
30. Die Erben des weissen Berges.[3]
31. Five Songs.
32. 'Klänge aus Mähren.' Vocal Duets.
33. PF. Concerto.
34. String Quartet in D minor.
35. Dumka for PF.
36. Variations in A♭ for PF.
37. Overture to 'Der Bauer ein Schelm.'
38. Four vocal Duets.
39. Suite for small Orchestra.
40. Symphonic Variations for Orchestra.
41. Scotch Dances for PF. Duet.
42. Two Furiants for PF.
43. Three Choruses with 4-hand accompaniment.
44. Serenade for Wind, Violoncello, and Double Bass.
45. Three Slavische Rhapsodien for Orchestra.
46. Slavische Tanze for PF. Duet.
47. Four Bagatellen for Harmonium (or PF.), two Violins, and Violoncello.
48. String Sextet in A.
49. Mazurek for Violin and Orchestra.
50. Three Neugriechische Gedichte.
51. String Quartet in E♭.
52. Impromptu, Intermezzo, Gigue and Scherzo for PF.
53. Violin Concerto.
54. Walzer for PF.
55. Zigeunerlieder for Tenor voice.
56. Mazurkas for PF.
57. Sonata in F for Violin and PF.
58. Stabat Mater for Solos, Chorus and Orchestra.
59. Legenden, for PF. Duet, arranged for Orchestra.
60. Symphony in D.
61. String Quartet in C.
62. Overture, 'Mein Helm.'
63. 'In der Natur.' Five choruses.
64. Opera, 'Dimitri' (see below).
65. Trio in F minor for PF. and Strings.
66. Scherzo capriccioso for Orchestra.
67. Overture, 'Husitzka.'
68. 'Aus der Böhmer Walde.' PF. Duets.
69. 'The Spectre's Bride.' Cantata for Soli, Chorus, and Orchestra.
70. Symphony in D minor.
71. Oratorio. 'St. Ludmila.'
72. New Slavische Tanze for Orchestra (books 3 and 4).
73. 'Im Volkston.' Four Songs.
74. Terzetto for two Violins and Viola.
75. Romantische Stücke. Violin and PF.
76. See op. 24.
77. String Quintet in G.
78. Symphonic Variations for Orchestra.
79. Ps. 149 for Chorus and Orchestra.
80. String Quartet in E.
81. Quintet for FP. and Strings.
[App. p.819 "82. 4 Songs"]

'Der König und der Köhler,' comic opera; produced at Prague, 1874.
'Die Dickschadel,' comic opera in one act; words by Dr. Josef Stolba; produced at Prague 1882 (written in 1874).
'Wanda,' grand tragic opera in five acts; words by Sumawsky, from the Polish of Sagynsky; produced at Prague, 1876.
'Der Bauer ein Schelm,' comic opera in two acts; words by J. O. Vessely; produced at Prague 1877.
'Dimitrij.' tragic opera (on the same subject as Joncleres' 'Dimitri'); produced at Prague 1882.

[ M. ]

  1. The accent over the R indicates the presence of a letter pronounced as the French J.
  2. The Symphony in F, written in 1875, to which the above number should have been affixed, has just been published as op. 76. The first performance took place at the Crystal Palace, April 7, 1888.
  3. 3.0 3.1 By the composer's desire, 'Die Erben des weissen Berges' (The Heirs of the White Mountain), originally published as op. 4, has been reissued as op. 30 by Messrs. Novello & Co. to whom the thanks of the writer are due for help in the compilation of the foregoing catalogue.