Born: September 8, 1841 – Nelahozeves, Austrian Empire (now Czech Republic)
Died: May 1, 1904 – Prague, Austrian Empire (now Czech Republic)
Dvořák was a prolific composer in an incredible range of musical genres. His catalogue includes: 9 symphonies, 14 symphonic poems, rhapsodies and overtures, 4 serenades and suites, 7 dances suites and marches, 10 choral works, 10 operas, 22 quartets, 5 quintets, 7 trios, 1 sextet, 15 duets, 26 piano solos, 5 piano duets, 20 songs/song cycles, 7 duets, 9 choruses/chorus cycles.
There are 11 pieces that he is known to have composed but that are missing or partially preserved. He left behind 42 uncompleted works.
Dvořák was the eldest of fourteen children and learned to play the violin at the age of six. His father and mother nurtured his talent and sent him to an uncle to learn German and study music when he was 13. It’s possible his first composition Forget-Me-Not Polka in C was written at that time.
He played violin in an orchestra that performed in restaurants and dance halls, which became the house orchestra for the Bohemian Provisional Theatre, a newly formed as a Czech national theatre after the abolition of Austrian Absolutism. It was there he met his future wife.
He fell in love with Josefína Čermáková, a fellow musician however she did not return his affection and married someone else. In what seems to be a bit of a habit (Haydn! Mozart!) he married her younger sister. He and Anna had a happy marriage and she often accompanied him on his travels – at least once with their six children in tow.
In 1874 he entered and won the Austrian State Prize for Composition. The official report records that he was a relatively impoverished music teacher who submitted 15 compositions including several symphonies “which display an undoubted talent”. It was felt he deserved the grant to “ease his straitened circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work”. It also records that he had not yet owned a piano of his own and that previous to his marriage he lodged with five other men, one of whom owned a small spinet piano. He was to win the Prize again in 1876 and 1877.
Johannes Brahms and Eduard Hanslick had sat on all three juries and through their influence set Dvořák on his international career. He was particularly well received in Britain and made eight visits there to conduct concerts of his works. His Symphony No. 7, Symphonic Variations and Cello Concerto in B Minor had their premieres in London. He was given an honourary degree by the University of Cambridge.
In 1892 Dvořák and his family moved to New York where he became Director of National Conservatory of Music in New York. Founded by wealthy philanthropist Jeanette Thurber, the Conservatory was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward people with disabilities. It set the standard for faculty and curriculum for conservatories throughout North America.
Dvořák was paid an astronomical yearly salary of $15,000.00; it was 25x his income at the time. He was required to work three hours a day – teaching and conducting – six days a week with four months vacation. Though that may sound like the perfect job the financial panic of 1893 depleted the funds of the Conservatory sponsors and his salary, if and when it was paid, was cut in half.
Dvořák set out to discover “American Music” and believed that the foundations of a national style would be based on African-American and Native American music. He began to explore those foundations when he heard Harry Burleigh, an African-American student, singing spirituals while he mopped floors to earn his tuition money. Burleigh said: “I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals. Dvořák said: “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”