Antonin Dvorak: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was enthusiastically patriotic, but also had a tremendous influence on American music and composers. Learn about his growing fame at home, his increasing popularity throughout Europe, and his time spent in the United States.

Old World Patriotism

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) felt strongly about national pride, and much of the music he composed celebrated his heritage and reflected his patriotism. Perhaps it was this understanding that partly motivated his decision to teach and compose in the United States for several years. He challenged American composers to incorporate Native American and African American folk music into the pieces they wrote. To set an example, Dvorak composed several works inspired by the songs and lore he encountered while visiting the 'New World,' and he had a lasting influence on African American musicians.

Antonin Dvorak in 1868
Antonin Dvorak in 1868

As a young boy, Dvorak grew up outside Prague and took violin lessons, and later studied organ. He became an organist and played viola in several orchestras before trying his hand at composing. His earliest works date from the early 1860s with some string quartets, and he continued writing symphonies, operas, and other pieces. His first great success was in 1873 with Hymnus (also known as The Heirs of the White Mountain) for chorus and orchestra, which reflected his strong national feelings.

In the mid-1870s Dvorak was awarded a government grant based on compositions he submitted. One of the judges was Johannes Brahms. Brahms was so impressed that he recommended Dvorak's 'Moravian Duets' to his own publisher, Simrock. Dvorak won additional awards in 1876 and 1877 and received continued encouragement from Brahms. As a result, Simrock commissioned Dvorak's first set of 'Slavonic Dances', which were especially popular. Dvorak modeled his 'Slavonic Dances' after the 'Hungarian Dances' by Brahms.

Moravian Duets
Moravian Piano Duets

Growing Fame

As his reputation spread, he devoted more time to travel for conducting and promoting his choral and orchestral music. He went to Vienna, various German cities and made nine trips to England. The British particularly enjoyed his music. In addition to several conducting opportunities, he also received commissions for new works. In 1891, Dvorak accepted a teaching position at the Prague Conservatory and was also presented with an honorary degree from Cambridge University.

In addition to commissions, Dvorak was inspired to produce new works in all genres. As more and more of his music was published, he insisted that the titles be printed in both Czech and German.

Dvorak had previously met Tchaikovsky on several occasions. That association brought an invitation for Dvorak to conduct in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1890. Growing fame eventually brought another invitation, this time to come to the United States.

Dvorak in America

The National Conservatory of Music in New York was founded in 1885 by Jeanette Thurber. She invited Dvorak to be its director and composition teacher. It was Thurber's vision that Dvorak be an inspiration to the development of American music as he had been in his homeland. Dvorak accepted Thurber's offer and taught at the Conservatory from September 1892 through May 1895. In addition to teaching and composing, he made numerous conducting appearances.

Dvorak made an impact on American music. In late 1892 he wrote a cantata called The American Flag. The following summer was spent in Spillville, Iowa where there was a large Czech community. There, Dvorak composed his American String Quartet and in he August conducted his Symphony No. 8 at the Chicago World's Fair to celebrate Bohemian Day. He stopped in several other cities and also went to Niagara Falls.

Manuscript of New World Symphony
New World Symphony manuscript cover

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