He was the son of a butcher from Nelahozeves whose talent literally touched the moon…and changed the course of music history forever.
Antonin Dvořák, one of the great composers of his time, may not be spoken about too much in modern times, but his music transcended borders in a much less globalized world than that of today. Counting Queen Victoria and Walt Disney among his fans, he managed to alter the United States’ musical landscape, and decades later, provide the soundtrack to that iconic first trip to the moon.
The Czech composer’s story is fascinating, and one that still resonates almost 120 years after his death.
His rise to international fame
Dvořák was surrounded by music from an early age. His father Frantisek played the zither, a classic stringed instrument, in a tavern below the family’s apartment on the banks of the Vltava river. The rhythms that the young Antonín heard went on to influence his compositions in later life and the boy showed great talent on the violin and organ to suggest that he wouldn’t have to follow his father into the butcher trade.
At the age of 16, he moved to Prague to study music, but his lack of money made things tough for the gifted young student. He supplemented his income as a viola player in the city’s theatre orchestra with teaching over the next decade, created his first symphonies and quartets, and then got married in late 1873.
It was only after his talent won him three successive Austrian state scholarships and prize money, that his fortunes started to pick up. While it was hard on the scale of winning the Czech lottery, it opened several doors of opportunity for him, including meeting the legendary Johannes Brahms. The composer was said to be “visibly overcome” by the “mastery and talent” of Dvořák.
Brahms’ faith in Dvořák’s talent led him to introduce him to a leading publisher, who helped him release Moravian Duets, a turning point in his career and, later, the iconic Slavonic Dances. It was Dvořák’s focus on what he considered ‘Slavic’ elements within the music that helped him to stand out from contemporaries, and in 1884, at the age of 42, bigger opportunities appeared on the horizon.
The Royal Albert Hall represented one of the great challenges for musicians back in the 19th century. Success there provided a gateway to superstardom, so when English composer Joseph Barnby performed Dvořák’s Stabat Mater to great acclaim, the stage was set for a series of UK performances by the man himself.
His eight performances over the next decade led to the biggest success of his life up to that point and put him among the list of great composers of his time. Fellow composer Hans Richter called it the most successful work he had seen in over a hundred concerts, while one trip even led to a royal gift from the Queen herself: twelve pedigree pigeons after Victoria had found out that Dvořák was a pigeon-fancier.
The crowning performance came at the 1885 premiere of his Seventh Symphony in London, often regarded as a masterpiece. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, upon hearing it, arranged for him to play in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then, in 1892, Dvořák accepted an offer of director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music. The job offered a $15,000 salary, worth around $450,000 today, and was enough to convince him and his family to set sail across the Atlantic.
A New York state of mind
Dvořák wrestled with two contrasting perspectives throughout his life: a global outlook, which explained his travel around the world, and a desire to stay loyal to his Bohemian roots, often reflected in his music.
It was in New York that he managed to marry the two ideals together. 6,500km from home, Dvořák identified with spiritual songs, seeing how similar their structure was to Bohemian melodies. Backed by millionaire Jeanette Thurber, the composer started to mix the two influences to create his Ninth Symphony: a huge success that paved the way for deeper American study into African-American music in the future and, possibly, the emergence of jazz music.
A sterling performance at Carnegie Hall in December 1893 marked a high point for Dvořák, but a heavy economic depression and money problems meant that his longing for home intensified. His sister-in-law’s death was the final straw for the family, and they returned to Europe in 1895, with the composer eager to start fresh.
Key works followed, including five symphonic poems that had a cosmic feel about them, while his Rusalka opera, written a few years before his death, is still performed regularly today.
Antonin Dvořák’s music has reached all four corners of the globe since his death, appearing in movies, adverts, and even a space mission.
Ridley Scott, before his mainstream success as a film director, chose the Largo from the composer’s Ninth Symphony to form a bread advert, voted the UK’s most iconic commercial of all time. Several decades earlier, Mickey Mouse was seen dancing to Humoresque in his 1929 movie Mickey’s Choo Choo. Although perhaps the most extraordinary place that Dvořák’s wonderful music has reached is the moon itself –astronaut Neil Armstrong chose the New World Symphony to be played as he took his first steps out onto the lunar landscape on the famous Apollo 11 mission.
But perhaps the most significant legacy that Dvořák left behind was the generation of composers that he inspired to ensure that his Bohemian roots would be echoed across the musical landscape for decades to come.