Composer Spotlight: Antonín Dvořák

May 17, 2016

A favourite of the many talented quartets who’ve graced the Friends of Chamber Music stage, Antonín Leopold Dvořák’s output of chamber music included more than 40 works for string ensembles. This prolific collection is in addition to his numerous symphonies, operas, and concerti.

The first of 14 children, Dvořák’s early years with his family in Nelahozeves as a Roman Catholic heavily influenced his music. As did a deep love for his Bohemian heritage; the rhythms of Slavic traditional music apparent in his works. Displaying a musical gift early on, Dvořák took up the violin at age six. But it was much later when his talent on the piano subsidised his career as a musician.

Dvořák began playing the viola in Karel Komzák’s orchestra at the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra in 1858. By 1866, his meager income lead to giving piano lessons. He fell in love with his pupil and colleague, Josefína Čermáková, however his love was unrequited and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna Čermáková, with whom he had nine children.

Leaving the Orchestra in 1871 to focus on composing, Dvořák submitted his First Symphony to a prize competition in Germany. The manuscript didn’t place, and was then misplaced until rediscovered decades later. Dvořák tried again in 1874, scoring two symphonies for the Austrian State Prize for Composition. Brahms happened to be head of the jury that year, and was said to be “visibly overcome” by Dvořák’s “mastery and talent”. Dvořák not only won the prize that year, but in 1876 and 1877 as well. Brahms also recommended Dvořák to his publisher Simrock.

From there, he started to gain momentum internationally, and was personally invited to Britain where he was commissioned to conduct for the London Philharmonic Society. In 1891, Dvořák was appointed as a professor at the Prague Conservatory where he composed one of his most successful pieces of chamber music: the Dumky Trio. A year later he moved to New York City and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. His goal to discover and engage in American music proved successful. Here, Dvořák wrote the symphony From the New World, his Cello Concerto, and his most appreciated work of chamber music: American String Quartet.

Eventually, Dvořák found his way home to Bohemia again due to a growing reputation in Europe and increasing homesickness. Unfortunately, when Dvořák’s life came to an end on May 1, 1904 after a bout of illness, it left many more of this great composer’s works unfinished. However, we will be forever grateful for what this prolific composer bestowed upon the world.