Happy Belated Birthday To Antonin Dvorak
It's one day late , but yesterday was the 168th birthday of the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904). Dvorak is one of the most famous and popular of composers, but unfortunately , his reputation with the concertgoing public is based on only a handful of his many works , which include symphonies , concertos , miscellaneous orchestral works, chamber music operas and choral works .
Perhaps his most famous work is his 9th and last symphony , called "From the New World ", which he wrote while living in America in the 1890s , specifically in New York . This is one of the most popular symphonies of all time , but he wrote nine symphonies, like Beethoven , Bruckner and Mahler . The 7th and 8th are also popular, but the first six are sadly neglected , and contain much delightful music .
Other popular works of his are the magnificent cello concerto , possibly the greatest concerto ever written for that instrument , the Slavonic Dances, for either orchestra or piano four hands , which are symphonic dances based on Czech, Polish , Ukrainian and Serbian dance rhythms , the So-called "American " string quartet, also written during his American sojourn , and the hauntingly beautiful fairy tale opera "Rusalka", which has only entered the international operatic repertoire fairly recently .
All of these are wonderful works , but there is a wealth of delightful music by Dvorak which is sadly neglected outside his native Bohemia, currently the Czech Republic . Dvorak was born in a Czech town not far from Prague in 1841 , the son a of an inkeeper who doubled as a butcher . Unlike other famous composers such as Wagner , Berlioz and Liszt etc, who were rather flamboyant personalities , Dvorak was never anything but a humble , modest , and unpretentious man , simple and always concious of his modest origin . He was more of an earnest , hard-working musical craftsman than the kind of stereotypical image of a heaven-storming , mad composer which many people have in their minds .
He became an accomplished violinist and violist as a young man but had to earn a living playing the viola in the orchestra of the Opera house in prague and by doing other free-lance work , teaching and playing the organ in church . He had little success with his music at first , but in 1877 , his compositional talent began to attract the attention of Johannes Brahms and other well- known composers . He won a prize for his music and Simrock , one of the leading music publishers of the day , began to publish his music . Dvorak was at last able to give up his musical hack work and drudgery .
His fame increased both in Bohemia and elsewhere in Europe , and he became a professor of composition at the Prague conservatory . By the 1890s , his achieved such renown that he received an offer to become the head of a new conservatory in New York City which had been supported by a wealthy American socialite named Jeanette Thurber . The offer was tempting ; the salary was far more generous than what he received in Prague , and he was curious to learn about the musical culture of the African-Americans and Native Americans , with whom he came into close contact .
Dvorak was based in New York , but he traveled around America , and spent time in a colony of Czech immigrants in a small town in Iowa . Having heard the folk music of America , he stated that the music of African-Americans Native Americans had the potential to become the foundation of a great tradition of American symphonic and chamber music .
But he returned to Prague, where he became head of the conservatory and continued to teach and compose untill his untimely death in 1904 at the age of only 62 . He was mourned as a national hero .
One of the most appealing aspects of Dvorak's music is its sheer tunefulness . Few composers have ever surpassed his music in this respect . But there's far more to his music than catchy melodies ; he spins them out in a wonderfully spntaneous and inventive manner , and his orchestration is very colorful . The famous New World symphony is said to evoke America in spirit , but Dvorak did not actually use any pre-existing American melodies ; the thmes are entirely his own . The spiritual "Going Home" which is based on the haunting melody of the slow movement , is a borrowing from an original melody .
The spirit of Czech folk dances and songs is seldom absent from Dvorak's music ; there is often a rustic, dance-like feel to his music with the lively rhythms of the Polka and the Furiant , Czech folk dances . His music is infectiously buoyant and bouncy .
The poignant fairy tale opera Rusalks , Dvorak's best -known opera , is the melancholy tale of a water sprite who falls in love with a prince who marries and abandons her after she is turned into a human by a witch . You may have heard the famous aria in which Rusalka longs for the prince . The comic counterpart to Rusalka is the delightfully droll "Devil and Kate" , which is one of the funniest comic operas of all time, and as irresistably melodious as Rusalka .
No matter what work of Dvorak you might get on CD, you are likely to find something delightful , and fortunately, despite ther scarcity of live performances of much of his music , there is a wealth of it on CD , led by such eminent Czech conductors as Rafael Kubelik , Vaclav Talich , Karel Ancerl, Vaclav Neumann, Jiri Belohlavek ,Libor Pesek (those Czech names are a mouthful;it's a very hard language to pronounce and I don't know how to put the diacritical marks in ) , as well as Non-Czech maestros such as Charles Mackerras , Istvan Kertesz , and others . Other great Czech musicians who are also steeped in Dvorak's music are pianists, Rudolf Firkusny and Ivan Moravec, violinist Josef Suk (great-grandson of the composer), and others . There is a wealth of recordings of Dvorak on the Supraphon label of the Czech republic . It's hard to find any one who doesn't love Dvorak, and I wouldn't want to meet such people myself !