Biography of Antonin Dvorak

or Dvorak and the viola

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Antonin 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 music.

Antonin Dvorak 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.

Antonin Leopold Dvorak Czech Musician
Antonin Leopold Dvorak, Czech Musician
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More pictures of Antonin Dvorak

Long 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.

Antonin Dvorak's 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.

While you read, listen to the first movement of the "American" quartet, with the viola starting the main theme
  click to listen

Early years and studies

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.

After 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 chorales 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.

Prague 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.

Initial professional experiences

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 violist. 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 wife), while he remained in the theatre orchestra until 1871. During this period he composed 
one quintet, four quartets, two symphonies, a cello concerto, a song cycle and the opera Alfred.

So far, you’ve seen that in his young, formative years, while he was studying composition, Antonin Dvorak went through a sort of “practical training” 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 books.

In composing, Dvorak aim was that no 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 violas.

First successes as a Czech composer

Before leaving the orchestra in 1871, he was composing an opera on a Czech libretto and soon his works 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 the jury, became so enthusiastic about Dvorak's Moravian duets (on folk songs) that recommended Dvorak to the Berlin music publisher Simrock.

After this, Dvorak started receiving requests for a big number of publications and immediately became a well-known composer, with his works performed internationally.

It is at this time (1878) that the first set of Slavonic Dances were composed, which are still some of his most famous compositions.

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 "From 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 different 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 his 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.

Antonin Dvorak the teacher

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 Carnegie Hall conducting his own Te Deum, written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of discovery of America by Columbus.

The "American" compositions

Wishing to find original music material, Dvorak asked to hear a 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 difficulty in composing. Eventually in 1895 he decided to go back home.

Dvorak: American Quartet / Smetana : Quartet From My Life
Listen to Mp3 files Dvorak: "American" Quartet; Smetana: Quartet "From My Life"

Final years

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 explained that 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:
  • Terzetto for two violins and viola
  • String Quartet "American" where the viola opens the quartet with the main theme and has an important role throughout

for two violins and viola
click to listen

Here is some music for you to play

Dvorak American quartet - Sheet music
Dvorak's "American" quartet
Full score and parts
Downloadable sheet music: pdf, Mp3 and MIDI files

Dvorak's "American" quartet
Full score and parts - Printed sheet music

Dvorak Terzetto play along (Music Minus One)

All Dvorak's music - Printed sheet music: Terzetto, quartets, quintets, sextet, orchestral excerpts etc.

Play along CDs (Music Minus One)

Terzetto for two violins and viola - Printed sheet music

...or to listen:
Dvorak: American quartet, Terzetto - Smetana quartet
CD recordings
All Dvorak's music on CDs

"American" quartet recordings on CD

Terzetto for two violins and viola on CD

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