In a small Bohemian village outside off Prague, Antonín Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841. The son of a Roman Catholic innkeeper,
Dvořák displayed an early interest in music. At the age of 6, he received his
first music lessons from the village school. Later, he studied in Prague and
became an accomplished performer on both the violin and viola.
Though he composed his first string quartet at the age of
20, much of Dvořák's early career centered on performing. Throughout the 1860s,
he was a violist in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra, which beginning
in 1866 was lead by his famous countryman Bedřich Smetana. After performing
with the group for over a decade, Dvořák secured a more stable position as
organist at St. Adalbert's Church in Prague. This new position not only gave
him better financial security but also much more time for composition. With his
focus now on composition, Dvořák ultimately drew the attention of Vienna's
leading composer, Johannes Brahms. Dvořák admired Brahms's music greatly and
the two soon became friends. With Brahms's help, several of Dvořák's
compositions were published to immediate success. Much like Schumann had done
for Brahms's some decades earlier, Brahms's endorsement had set Dvořák on the
path of success. Following the successful performance of Dvořák's Stabat
Mater in London, he was invited to England and composed his Symphony No. 7
for a premiere in London. In 1890, he visited Russia, conducting orchestras in
both Moscow and St. Petersburg. The following year he received an honorary
degree from the University of Cambridge and a position as professor of
composition at Prague University.
Highest on his list of achievements, however, is the three
years (1892-95) he served director of the National Conservatory of Music in New
York City. Founded in 1885 by a wealthy socialite, Dvořák's purpose was to
discover and establish "American music." Though he wrote a series of newspaper
articles supporting the concept of an American tradition of music founded in
African-American and Native American music, his profoundest statements are the two
works written with this goal in mind—the Symphony No. 9 "From the New World"
and the "American" Quartet, both influenced by the spirituals he heard while in
America. However, a dispute over a pay and growing homesickness prompted Dvořák
to return home to his native Bohemia before the conclusion of the spring
semester in 1895.
During his final years, Dvořák concentrated on the
composition of opera and chamber music. He made his final trip to London in
1896 for the premiere of his Cello Concerto in B minor and in 1901 he became
director of the Conservatory in Prague. A few years later, on May 1, 1904, he
died of heart failure.
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