Timeline: Antonin Dvorak

Jul 18, 2016

The musical challenge of the 19th century composer was finding the balance between the traditional styles and forms of the past while embracing their own heritage and homeland. The Bohemian composer, Antonin Dvorak, was extremely successful at walking this fine line.  Many consider Dvorak to be the greatest Czech nationalist composer of all time.

As a young child, it was obvious that Antonin was musically gifted. He would travel to churches and surrounding villages to play concerts on his violin. Nevertheless, at the age of 12, he was forced to leave school and take up an apprenticeship as a butcher. It took the prodding of his uncle and several music teachers to convince Antonin’s father to allow him to pursue a career in music.

Dvorak did not receive top marks in school and spent the first few years of his career in obscurity. He was 31 when he scored his first hit with the patriotic cantata "The Heirs of the White Mountains." This success gave him the confidence he needed to apply for and win a stipend from the Austrian state. One of the judges of this award was Johannes Brahms who became a champion of Dvorak’s music.

Brahms’ endorsement brought a flurry of publishing as Dvorak’s work began to circulate around Europe. Brahms and others suggested that Dvorak leave Prague, his homeland, and come to Vienna, the music capital of the world. Dvorak wouldn’t leave his home. Instead, he went on extensive tours of Europe, including England and Russia where he met and befriended Tchaikovsky.

Dvorak was not only an accomplished composer but also a talented professor.  In 1892, he came to the United States and took a position as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. During these years, he spent his summers in Iowa with his family. Those months saw the composition of such masterworks as his "String Quartet no.14 in F major, 'The American Quartet'" and the beginnings of his "New World Symphony."

A photograph of Antonin Dvorak and his family taken during their time in the United States.
Credit US-PD

Dvorak’s last years saw accolades coming from all sides. During the first performance of his opera "Armida" in 1904 he was forced to leave early due to a severe pain in his side. This was a sign of the illness that would take his life on May 1 of that year. Dvorak was buried in a place of honor, among other Czech dignitaries.

Antonin Dvorak had one foot planted in the styles and sounds of his beloved Bohemia and the other firmly stood on the traditions and practices of the Classical and Romantic composers who preceded him.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.