Dvorak (Antonín Leopold Dvořák) is another of the many composers who played the viola.
In this short biography of Dvorak you'll read something about his life and relationship with the
viola and you'll see some examples of Dvorak's use of the viola in his
was a Czech composer, born in 1841 and
died in 1904. With Smetana, Fibich and Janáček he is regarded as one of
the great nationalist Czech composers of the 19th century.
neglected and dismissed by the German-speaking musical world as a naive
Czech musician, he is now considered by both Czech and international
musicologists Smetana’s true heir. He earned worldwide admiration and
prestige for 19th-century Czech music with his symphonies, chamber
music, oratorios, songs and, to a lesser extent, his operas.
best known works are The New
World Symphony, the Slavonic
Dances, the "American"
String Quartet and the Cello
Concerto in B minor.
He wrote in almost all music genres of the time: opera, oratorio,
cantata and mass; symphony, symphonic poem, concert
overture, serenade, suite, dance and march; concert piece and solo
concerto; chamber music ranging from the solo sonata to the sextet;
piano music; and secular choral works and songs.
read, listen to the first movement of the "American" quartet, with the
starting the main theme
click to listen
Antonin Dvorak was born near
Prague from a
simple family, his father was a
butcher and innkeeper who played zither for is guests, and was the
first of eight children. He received his first musical education at
the age of six, at his village school, learning to sing and play violin
and soon playing at church in the village band, thanks to his progress.
six years he was sent to a bigger town where he continued
to study German, violin, piano, organ and continuo playing, and music
theory. Then in 1857 he went to the capital, Prague, to study at the
Organ School, where he also learned composition, the playing of
and improvising, while attending also the secondary school. And here we
find Antonin Dvorak
playing viola in
the music society orchestra, with programmes including music by
Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner, among the others.
has always had a very rich musical life and there Dvorak was also able
to hear Liszt conducting his woks and Schumann’s wife, Clara,
performing on the piano.
In 1859 Dvořák as a viola player
joined a dance band that played in restaurants and for balls, remaining
there for some years. In 1862 a Czech opera house was built and the
band musicians came to form the original group of the theatre
orchestra, with Dvořák as principal
They performed German, French and mostly Italian operas by Rossini,
Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. (They had built a Czech opera house but
they didn’t yet have a Czech opera to perform in there). In 1866 Smetana became the theatre
conductor, having won a competition for an
opera based on a Czech theme. From then, more and more local composers’
works were included in the programmes.
In addition to the theatre
orchestra, Dvorak played also with some other music societies, also in
some concerts conducted by Wagner. Dvorak also started composing
and teaching piano (one pupil of his, Anna, will become his
he remained in the theatre orchestra until 1871. During this period he
one quintet, four quartets, two symphonies, a cello concerto,
a song cycle and the opera Alfred.
far, you’ve seen that in his young, formative years, while he was
studying composition, Antonin Dvorak went through a sort of “practical
about instrumental music, playing
viola in orchestras from the age of 16
to the age of 30. No doubt this was a better way
to learn about other
composers’ styles and how to write for instruments than by just reading
In composing, Dvorak aim was
instrument should be playing a part that is merely filling in,
every instrument speaks a language of its own.
His first first official opus
work was a quintet with two
successes as a Czech composer
Before leaving the orchestra
in 1871, he was composing an opera on a Czech libretto and soon his
started to get performed in Prague and be received well. In the
following years Dvorak
worked as a composer ad as a teacher and, to supply his income, he
applied for a salary for
artists granted by the Austrian state. This was granted for several
years and on one of these occasions (1877) Brahms, who was in
became so enthusiastic about Dvorak's Moravian
folk songs) that recommended Dvorak to the Berlin music publisher
Dvorak started receiving requests for a big number of publications and
became a well-known composer, with his works performed internationally.
at this time (1878) that the first set of Slavonic
Dances were composed, which are still some of his most
Dvorak had started the study of Slavonic
folklore and included it in his works; he composed also
several song cycles on Czech poems and Czech operas.
The Slavonic Dances were performed in Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Nice,
London and New York and also the Slavonic Rhapsodies (1879) were
performed in Europe and USA. The famous violin player Joseph Joachim was an
important supporter of
Dvorak, performed his sextet and the publisher Simrock suggested Dvorak
to write a violin concerto for him, which Dvorak did.
Talking about Dvorak as a viola player, it's also
interesting to note that, although Dvorak was no longer playing viola
professionally in the orchestra, in 1878 he took part in the first
private performance of Smetana's
my life" quartet, another important composition where the
viola has a leading role from the beginning.
At the same time Dvorak
also composed music for important public celebrations, a historical
grand opera for the inauguration of the Czech National Theatre.
Following the international fame achieved, Dvorak was invited to England
to conduct his own works. In 1884 he travelled to London and conducted
there his Stabat Mater, the Slavonic Dances and other works in
parts of the country. It was a great success and over the following
years Dvorak travelled to England eight more times and also received an
honorary degree by the university of Cambridge.
Antonin Dvorak composer had been getting more and more recognition for
works, at home and abroad. Having met and made friends with
Tchaikovsky, who had been in Prague as a conductor, Antonin Dvorak also
travelled on a concert tour to Moscow and St Petersburg.
Since young, Dvorak had been
teaching piano privately, but in 1891 he accepted a post as a professor
of composition and instrumentation at Prague Conservatory. His job here
didn't last long, as the following year he was asked to become the artistic director
and professor of composition at the National Conservatory of
Music in New York,
with a salary of $15,000.
This proposal came from Mrs Jeanette Thurber, the conservatory's
president, who chose him because of his reputation as a nationalistic
composer. Mrs Thurber wanted to create a national American style
of music. After some hesitation, Dvorak accepted and soon
started a tour of over 40 concerts as a conductor and pianist.
Antonin Dvorak arrived in America in October 1892 and appeared at
conducting his own Te Deum, written to celebrate the 400th anniversary
of discovery of America by Columbus.
Wishing to find original music material, Dvorak asked to hear
black student sing to him Negro spirituals and plantation songs, as
well as see transcriptions of natives' melodies.
He thought that
American music could be based on such elements. A few composition from
this time have the "American" nickname, like the "American" quartet,
the "American" symphony
n.9 (also called "From
the new world"), the "American" quintet.
After the first year,
Mrs Thurber was no
longer able to finance the conservatory, due to a financial crisis, and
payments were delayed.
Dvorak felt homesick and had
composing. Eventually in 1895 he decided to go back home.
Back in Prague, Dvorak spent some time resting, enjoying his family and
country. He completed some works started in the USA and began to teach
again at the conservatory, of which he become the director in 1901.
Antonin Dvorak's final works were mostly operas and he himself
he considered them very important for the nation, because large
portions of the society would hear them and often.
His last composition was the opera Armida; during the first performance
he didn't feel well and had to leave and after a few weeks died.
Dvorak viola concerto?
Some people asked me about this, the truth is that there are transcriptions for viola of the cello concerto and of the violin concerto. They are well worth trying, if you love these pieces.
Some chamber music works with interesting viola parts:
for two violins and viola
String Quartet "American"
viola opens the quartet with the main theme and has an
important role throughout
for two violins and viola
click to listen