Portrait du compositeur Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Portrait du compositeur Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) © Getty

Is Dvořák a major ambassador for Czech music?

Who says Czech music says Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), it makes no doubt. For on top of being the author of a considerable work, he found his place in the Czech musical landscape at the right moment.

Symphonies, chamber music, operas, concertos, Moravian chants, rhapsodies, dances, serenades... The monumental work of Antonín Dvořák traveled through every genre and his melodic writing did not cease to improve until his triumph with his Symphony No. 9 (1893), his Cello Concerto in B Minor (1895)and his opera Rusalka (1901).

Among the Czech composers of that time, Dvořák's music crossed best the frontiers and was successful abroad, especially in England and the United States. His fame is so big that it sometimes hides his contemporaries Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).

A work filled with the popular traditions

Expected to take over his father's inn-butchery, Antonín Dvořák could not have guessed he would later become the director of the Conservatoires of New York and Prague. Born in the village Nelahozeves, the composer is very attached to his natal Bohemia. Popular holidays and balls at the inn gave cadence to his teenage years are rhythmed and the view of the wild nature surrounding the Vltava (Moldau in German) enchanted his young eyes.

The beauty of the land and its folklore can be systematically found in his music, especially in his famous Slavonic Dances (1878 and 1886). As the Cezch music specialist Guy Erismann pointed out in his book Antonín Dvořák, the trend was "the elation for the national popular heritage". Brahms just composed his Hungarian Dances, Grieg his Norwegian Dances. With rhythms inspired from the local dances, such as polka, the furiant, the sousedská, and an orchestration close of the one of the village ensembles', the Serenade for Wind Instruments also alludes to Czech culture.

Portrait du compositeur morave Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Portrait du compositeur morave Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) © Getty

But Dvořák is certainly not the only Czech musician whose work is fed from tradition. Like his elder, Leoš Janáček grew up in the countryside, was from a modest background and rubbed shoulders with the kantors (Kapellmeister). Born in Moldavia, he admired Dvořák (who incidentally is the author of 23 Moravian Duets 1875-1881). Yet, everything seems to oppose them. According to Guy Erismann, "nothing could unite those two men with such different characters if not a great obstination, violent for one, soft for the other, combined with a tenacious Slavic poetry".

In Smetana's footsteps

The 19th century saw the birth of the musical nationalism in Europe. At the time, the peoples under the domination of the Empire Austro-Hungarian demand their independence, which also expresses itself through culture and language. It is in that context that the new Czech music saw the day. But when the young Dvořák got to Prague in 1857 at the age of only 16, everyone spoke German. He learnt it quick late and the language still rose some difficulties. 

On the contrary, Bedřich Smetana spoke it very well. He was nonetheless a fierce defender of the national cause. In 1886, he was appointed director of the temporary theatre. From that day, the composer would devote his energy and his life to the construction of a Czech National Theatre (it opened its doors only fifteen years later, in June 1881). And at the same moment, the young Dvořák, violist in the pit, was composing in hiding his first opera, Alfred, on a German text! 

Portrait du compositeur Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), vers 1877
Portrait du compositeur Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), vers 1877 © Getty

Incidentally is was not Dvořák but Smetana who was called the "Father of Czech music". According to Guy Erismann, Smetana managed to combine folklore and "national modernism". Pieces like the symphonic cycle Má Vlast composed between 1874 and 1879 are an undeniable proof. It is composed of six poems, each one dedicated to the landscapes or the legends of Bohemia. Among them, the famous Moldau referring to the river that passes through Prague, but also Blaník after a legendary mountain. Guy Erismann wrote that "Dvořák would probably have not become the author of the Symphony of the New World without this pioneer elder".

However, Smetana's repertoire didn't benefit from the same profusion as his contemporary's for he spent a lot of time on the National Theatre project.

Discreet but efficient

Standing beside the turbulent Smetana and Janáček, Dvořák did not exactly look like a great rebel... On the contrary, he distinguished himself with his discretion, his stability and more importantly his great sense of consensus. First, unlike them, he didn't stand openly against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Guy Erismann wrote, "despite his patriotic aspirations", his behavior towards Vienna stayed respectful. That is one of the reasons he was granted a pension from the State during five years from 1875. Smetana was on his part impertinent politically speaking and never benefitted from it.

"Point of all the confluences, his stable and tenacious nature, the solidity of his peasant and patriotic positions, his inflexibility, his critical sense and the attention he paid to external movements at the same time only strengthen a character already robust […]. This impressive oak-tree, with wide branches, still projects its shadow on an entire generation of composers, the ones of the National Theatre". Guy Erismann, La Musique dans les pays tchèques

And Dvořák knew how to be accommodating in every circumstances, like during his confrontation with the great violinist Josef Joachim. In 1879, the composer just finished his Violin Concerto. He then showed Joachim the partition, to get his opinion on the technical side. The violinist was not entirely satisfied and said "I can tell you have not played for a long time". Dvořák did not take offense though and later, he very humbly reworked the entire partition! Eventually, the piece was created three years later by the violinist František Ondříček. Joachim could never be fully happy with the piece...

You are listening to :