Not everyone who composed lovely music was lovely! But the Czech composer, Dvořák, seemed to have been. His good-hearted and natural character were admired everywhere and are mirrored in his enormous output of music. He was almost as versatile as Mozart, but some of music isn’t well known. Most famous is his Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’, composed while Dvořák was living in the United States. He went there because he was paid a huge salary to go. While he was there he did a lot to promote native American music. His Cello Concerto, maybe the most popular ever written, and his ‘American’ String Quartet were also composed there.
But Dvořák’s heart was always in his native Bohemia (now the western half of the Czech Republic) and he was much inspired by his native country’s folksong. This influence can be heard in his symphonies, his Slavonic Dances, his famous opera Rusalka, and his songs. One, ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ (which is actually just a single song – from his Gypsy Songs) became enormously popular.
When you listen to Dvořák’s music, you can feel the easy-going warmth of his personality. There is a lot of it to listen to! He wrote many descriptive pieces for orchestra called symphonic poems. He was a devout Catholic and wrote lots of beautiful church music. He also wrote several operas – he had spent a few years playing the viola in the ‘pit’ (the bit below the stage where orchestras play in the theatre) so he knew a wide range of operas very well before he wrote his own. Only Rusalka is performed very often today.
Unlike many of the composers you will learn about, Dvořák did not have success early in life. He was one of 14 children and for a while worked as an apprentice butcher. In the evenings, he played in his father’s local zither band (a zither looks a bit like a harp and was popular in folk music). He was poor and no one performed his music in public until he was in his 30s. It was when the famous composer Brahms discovered him that Dvořák started to get attention outside his home country. Influenced by Wagner, admired by Brahms and rooted in Bohemia, he and his music – cheerful and fresh – eventually became famous all over the world, and he was able to provide well for his large family.
Dabble in Dvořák – pick a track...
Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’: II. Largo
The famous melody of this beautiful slow movement, introduced by a solo cor anglais at 0.45, sounds like the American spiritual Goin’ Home – but, actually, the spiritual is based on Dvořák’s music. Neil Armstrong took a recording of this symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser
Taken from Naxos 8.550271
Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55 No. 4 (arr. F. Kreisler for violin and piano)
‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ is the fourth of seven Gypsy Songs. This version is a transcription by the famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler.
Performers: Zhou Qian, violin; Edmund Battersby, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.554730
Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90, B. 166, ‘Dumky’: II. Poco Adagio – Vivace non troppo
Dumky (plural of dumka) are pieces of Slavic music that alternate sad, introspective sections with more cheerful sections. The second movement of Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Trio starts slow and ends fast.
Performers: Joachim Trio
Taken from Naxos 8.550444
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● Where was Dvořák born?
● What hobby did Dvořák enjoy doing in his homeland?
● Where did Dvořák spend three years on a high salary?
● What job did he do when he was a boy?
● Which great composer encouraged Dvořák and helped get his first works published?
- Dvořák was a keen train-spotter and memorized the Prague train timetable.
- Dvořák was paid a fortune to go to America. His salary was $15,000, a year which is equivalent to half a million pounds today – almost like a footballer! He stayed there for three years before he became homesick and returned to Bohemia.
- In America, Dvořák developed a passion for steamships and for pigeons!
- Dvořák was inspired not only by his native folksong, but also by earlier composers. He said he admired Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and, particularly, Schubert.
- Unlike most of the great composers, Dvořák could speak English (though he wasn’t very good!). He liked Britain and visited eight times with great success.
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Carnival Overture, Op. 92
Carnival Overture is one of three overtures (here, simply pieces for orchestra) Dvořák wrote as a group called ‘Nature, Life and Love’. This one represents the ‘Life’ of the title. It certainly possesses plenty of energy and variety – listen to the build up of rattling tambourines at 2.57 and then the fanfare of brass 3.04–3.10… and then it quickly becomes magical and delicate.
Performers: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser
Taken from Naxos 8.550600
Slavonic Dances, Op. 46
The Slavonic Dances brought Dvořák popularity and money. Infused with the folk music of his homeland, they also have a freshness and energy that people love. Dvořák wrote them first of all for two pianos, and then he produced a version for orchestra. They particularly impressed Brahms, and an important newspaper critic in Berlin wrote: ‘a heavenly naturalness flows through this music’. Op. 46 is the first of two sets.
Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdenĕk Košler
Taken from Naxos 8.550143
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191
Glowing with melody, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is sweeping and romantic. Brahms was so impressed and inspired by it he said he wished he’d written a cello concerto like that himself! In movement 1, there is a long introduction before the solo cello comes in – the orchestra sets the scene, and different instruments have their moments (solo from the French horn at 2.15; at 2.50 the clarinet takes over; then the oboe has a go at 3.00…). Finally at 3.45: enter the cello! At 6.07, it has the lovely solo that the French horn gave us quietly at 2.15. Everything is connected.
Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász
Taken from Naxos 8.550503
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 was first performed in London: it was an enormous success. As usual, Dvořák is a master in the way he handles the orchestra. While using the full force of the group at times, with rainbow-like melodies and stormy percussion, he also has individual sounds shine through like little spotlights. And of course, folk dance is never far away – just listen to the third movement!
Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser
Taken from Naxos 8.550270
The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109, B. 197
This lengthy symphonic poem depicts in music a rather gruesome story of murder and deception – though fortunately it has a happy ending (the murdered young lady is brought back to life and marries the king!). Various instruments in the orchestra are highlighted – a clarinet duet at 2.25, singing violins at 6:46 as the whole orchestra becomes warmer, at 7.32–7.47 the ominous low strings (cellos and double basses), and can you hear the cymbals at 8.53? Dvořák liked cymbals!
Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser
Taken from Naxos 8.550598
Chamber and Piano Music
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, B.179, ‘American’
This quartet was written by Dvořák when he was relaxing during a summer holiday in the American countryside. The relaxation was good for him: he wrote the whole thing in little more than two weeks. Dvořák loved native American music, and although the quartet doesn’t actually quote tunes from spirituals it seems to breathe the same air. Admiring Haydn, he wanted to compose something straightforward and melodious. He succeeded, and wrote a masterpiece.
Performers: Vlach Quartet Prague
Taken from Naxos 8.553371
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81
One of the finest piano quintets (two violins, viola, cello and piano), this is full of great tunes and fizzing energy. It is the cello that has the opening melody – just as it unfolds gently, the violins and viola come bursting in to interrupt. The melody comes back high up on the violin at 1.23, and again things get dramatic at 1.44. At 2.11, the viola has a moment to speak, though not for long… the work is full of surprises, sunshine, and extraordinary beauty.
Performers: Vlach Quartet Prague; Ivan Klánský, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.555377
From the Bohemian Forest, Op. 68, B. 133
Small piano pieces were popular in the 19th century, when many more people played the piano. Where today your evening entertainment might be provided by the TV, if you lived 150 years ago you might have been playing or listening to the piano instead! From the Bohemian Forest is a set of duets (four hands on one piano) that Dvořák made up in his head while he walked in the woodland.
Performers: Christian Köhn and Silke-Thora Matthies, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.553137
Rusalka, Op. 114: Act 1: O silver moon (‘Song to the Moon’)
Rusalka is the only opera by Dvořák to be performed very much. In Slavic myths, a rusalka is a female water nymph, living in a lake or a river. The popularly named ‘Song to the Moon’ is a beautiful aria for Rusalka’s soprano voice. It is often performed on its own in concert halls, and has been arranged for violin and used in films.
Performers: Jana Valaškova, soprano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Johannes Wildner
Taken from Naxos 8.552139-40
Stabat Mater, Op. 58, B. 71 (excerpts)
Dvořák started writing his Stabat Mater, for soloists, choir and orchestra, when his daughter died. He finished it after the later death of his two other children. The ‘Stabat Mater’ is a Catholic Latin text from the 13th century that portrays Mary’s suffering as her son Jesus dies on the cross. As a Catholic, Dvořák wrote many religious works; this was the first. He went on to have several more children, all of whom survived infancy.
Performers: Christine Brewer, soprano; Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano; John Aler, tenor; Ding Gao, baritone; The Washington Chorus and Orchestra; Robert Shafer
Taken from Naxos 8.555301-02
Requiem, Op. 89, B. 165 (excerpts)
Following the success in England of his Stabat Mater, Dvořák was asked to compose a requiem (a Mass for the dead). Here included are three sections: ‘Requiem aeternam’ (‘Rest in peace’); ‘Confutatis maledictis’ (‘When the wicked are silenced’); and ‘Agnus Dei’ (‘Lamb of God’), the last movement – a reflective and compassionate piece.
Performers: Christiane Libor, soprano; Ewa Wolak, alto; Daniel Kirch, tenor; Janusz Monarcha, bass; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Antoni Wit
Taken from Naxos 8.572874-75