A Nationalist for the World
A young Czech violist, son of a butcher and innkeeper, scratches out a living in a Prague orchestra. He composes when he can, but he’s even short of money for paper. It’s the 1860s, and his fellow Czechs, though proud of their culture, have no country of their own—they’re just one small part of the giant Austrian Empire. But the violist, Antonín Dvorák, starts to give voice to their pride with music. He becomes more than a copycat of Germans like Beethoven and Wagner. Inspired by the operas of his conductor, Bedrich Smetana, young Dvorák draws on the melodies and rhythms of Czech folk music. Over time, Dvorák’s “nationalist” music far surpasses Smetana’s. His music is distinctly Czech, yet its beauty and skill have universal appeal.
A small-town native of the Bohemia region, Dvorák met little success composing until his early 30s. Then three compositions won prestigious prizes. His work got the attention of Johannes Brahms, and the two became good friends. Though only a few years older, Brahms was already established professionally. He helped Dvorák find a music publisher. Publication, in turn, brought Dvorák’s music to a wider world. Now happily married, Dvorák quit orchestral playing to concentrate on composition.
Like his European peers, he traveled widely to conduct his own and others’ works. No trip marked his life, though, as did a three-year journey to America. He came in 1892 to direct a new music conservatory in New York City, but an entire new world awaited him, from the hustle of Manhattan to the wide, desolate American prairie. Even the foreign bird songs caught the ear of Dvorák, who loved long walks in the country. In New York, his pupils included the gifted African-American composer Harry Burleigh, and Burleigh sang him spirituals and popular parlor songs. But Dvorák grew deeply homesick in America. Whether through that sadness or the new surroundings, the trip inspired Dvorák to compose his some of his best music: the immensely popular “New World” symphony, his cello concerto, and his string quartet no. 12, the “American.” Some people hear echoes of African-American spirituals in these works—a melody in the “New World” symphony borrows from "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Others argue that Czech tunes, too, share such elements as the use of five-tone scales. All agree, though, that America’s folk music spoke strongly to Dvorák. He implored his American students to make their own nationalist music. And those students passed that lesson on to such American originals as Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin.
Dvorák died a national hero at age 62, but he remained always a modest man, one who’d rather play with his children (he had nine) or watch steam trains than attend a society party. Though his operas and choral music have faded from popularity, little else has. One his best-known pieces—the Humoresque no. 7—was, oddly, written for the piano, an instrument where Dvorák was least successful. His pastoral melodies, mastery of form and orchestration shine best in his well-loved symphonies, symphonic poems, cello and violin concertos, and chamber music. Fans of his 14 string quartets will can hear in their beauty the genius of a former orchestra violist who, in all ways, never forgot his roots.
© Andrew Campbell