In the mid-1980’s, General Motors ran an advertising campaign for its Chevrolet division of automobiles proclaiming the brand an American icon equal to the stature of baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. If Czech auto maker Škoda were to do a similar commercial in their native country, they might compare themselves to football (soccer), hovězí knedlíčky (beef dumplings), medovník (a traditional honey cake), and Antonin Dvořák. Dvořák was a leading proponent of Czech musical nationalism. He was proud of his heritage and let that pride show through in his pieces often borrowing segments from time-honored Czech folk songs. He brought Czech music to an international audience and won critical acclaim along the way.
Antonin Leopold Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia on September 8, 1841. His father was a butcher and innkeeper by trade, but was also a musician who played the zither (an instrument in the same family as the dulcimer). Although his father had wished for young Antonin to follow in his footsteps as a butcher, Dvořák showed an immense aptitude for the violin and was sent away to study in the town of Zlonice at the age of twelve. In 1856, he moved on to the Ceska Kamenice to study the organ and to learn music theory and a year later he was accepted at the prestigious Prague Organ School.
After his studies were finished in 1859, Dvořák began a career as a concert violinist. The pay for musicians at the time was meager. Dvořák would play viola in cafes, play organ in an asylum, and give piano lessons to supplement his income. One of his favorite piano students was a lovely young girl named Anna Cermakova, the woman he would later take as his bride.
After apply a couple of times, Dvořák was finally accepted into the National Theatre of Prague. He played violin and was featured in three concerts that were conducted by the famous German composer Richard Wagner. Dvořák would spend the next ten years with the musical company before his desire to spend more time on composition would lead him to leave them and accept a position with the Church of St. Vojtech as church organist. This position paid him well enough that he could stop doing the other vocations he was using to supplement his income and spend that time on composing.
Over the next six years, Dvořák’s life was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. He was honing his craft and others were beginning to take notice. Composers such as Brahms and Tchaikovsky became close friends of his and they would correspond often. But, in his personal life he was wracked with grief at the loss of three of his nine children. Finally in 1878, German publishers started to request pieces from Dvořák. All of his hard work and personal turmoil were starting to payoff. The commissions and accolades began to pour in.
Money came from Vienna and Prague to produce pieces for each of the cities. He was asked to create works for the ball of the Narodni Beseda, a dance for the Academic Reading Union, and the Silver Anniversary celebration of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. He was made a member of the Austrian Order of the Iron Crown and the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts and was presented with honorary degrees from the Czech University of Prague and the University of Cambridge. The London Philharmonic Orchestra invited him to come guest conduct their performances of his work in 1883. Dvořák was enamored of the city of London and would continue to make many trips there over the next seven years.
Maybe the most important honor to Dvořák himself was when he was offered the position of Professor of Composition and Instrumentation at the Prague Conservatory. As much as this honor meant to him personally, he would only stay there for two years. In 1892, the National Conservatory of Music in America offered him the position of Artistic Director and Professor of Composition. The Americans had never given much contribution to the art music world. Dvořák saw the opportunity to influence the next generation of artists from America and he did more than influence them. One might even call Dvořák the “Grandfather of American Classical Music”. His pupil, Rubin Goldmark, would go on to teach two of the first great American composers in Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Dvořák continued to shape young minds in America until 1895 when his love and longing for his home country could no longer be tolerated. He returned to the Prague Conservatory and was eventually named the Director. He continued to write and it was during the first performance of his last opera, Armida, when Dvořák was stricken with a horrible pain in his side. After five weeks of illness, Dvořák passed away on May 1, 1904.
No matter where his talents would take him, Dvořák always came home to his motherland. His love for the people and culture of home could never be matched by any place that he travelled. He was beloved by the Czech people, also. One needs only to look to his burial place to know Dvořák’s place in Czech society. His body was interred in Vysehrad Cemetery, a place reserved only for the elite artists, poets, composers, and sculptors of Czech heritage. Dvořák received no higher honor in life than his final resting place in death.