Influential People: Antonín Dvořák

So…. influential in a different way.

While people like Nadia Boulanger or Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were incredibly influential as, among other things, educators, the only student of Dvořák’s whose name jumped out at me was one Josef Suk (composer, not the violinist), who also later married his teacher’s daughter. Dvořák, on the other hand, composed (at least) a little of everything, as we shall see.

Dvořák was influential in another way: he was considered by some to be “arguably the most versatile… composer of his time” per Taruskin’s Music in the Nineteenth Century, page 754. We’ll get to that later, though.

Antonín Leopold Dvořák was the oldest of 14 children (six of whom did not survive infancy) and began his musical studies on the age of six, at the violin. Before he was twenty years old, he’d graduated from the Organ School (in Zlonice), studied violin, organ, composition, music theory, and even played as a stand-in violist in at least one orchestra.

In 1862, aged 22, he began playing in a “professional” (?) orchestra that apparently played mostly opera. The young, poor student couldn’t afford concert tickets, so he got his exposure to concert and opera music as a performer, not an audience member. A year later, in 1863, he had the chance to play in a concert dedicated to Richard Wagner, with the Man Himself at the podium. Playing under Wagner himself left a huge impression on Dvořák, and (perhaps unrelated) he began composing his first string quartet around this time.

For a full biography of the guy, just visit his Wikipedia page. He’d composed a number of things, including his first two symphonies (at least the first one?) was lost and some early works may have possibly never had premieres, only receiving recognition later and causing some numbering confusion.

In any case, a string quartet of his, op. 5 was the first of his works to be performed in a concert setting. He’d gotten some recognition in Prague, but really only locally. His earliest works went without any apparent recognition, and so the composer, without funds but apparently with plenty of confidence (or hope) submitted fifteen of his works to the Austrian State Prize, as a kind of grant to aid in struggling/up-and-coming composers who showed real talent. Eduard Hanslick and The Bearded Wonder Himself, Johannes Brahms (also another Johannes, this one Herbeck).

In any case, Brahms pored over the fifteen submissions from this little-known composer and was in love. Among them were his second and third symphonies, and they awarded him “financial support”. Wikipedia quotes John Clapham’s Antonín Dvořák, Musician and Craftsman stating that, not only had he “not yet owned a piano,” but that he:

“has submitted 15 compositions, among them symphonies, which display an undoubted talent…The applicant… deserves a grant to ease his straitened circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.”

In any case, he submitted entries for the prize in subsequent years and won at least once more. Brahms eventually recommended the composer to his own publisher, Simrock, and he and Hanslick eventually reached out to Dvořák personally to offer their support in making his work known internationally. He was also doing well enough for himself that he felt he could quit his day job as an organist. He’d gotten his break.

Undoubtedly the man’s most famous works are those associated with his time in America, the ninth symphony, the cello concerto, and the twelfth string quartet, the ‘American.’ That’s maybe odd for a (highly) nationalist Czech composer. He experienced no small degree of prejudice or discrimination as a result of his nationality, but was insistent on writing distinctly Czech music, and did he ever write music: nine symphonies, three concertos, at least ten operas, 14 string quartets, a handful of piano and/or string quintets and trios, Stabat Mater, a requiem (among a body of other choral work), songs, works for solo piano, as well as, obviously, a handful of symphonic poems.

His ninth symphony is one of the most-played, well-recognized symphonies today; his cello concerto is one of if not the greatest cello concerto in the repertoire. He also wrote concertos for both violin and piano, the former more often performed than the latter.

In many ways, looking at Dvořák on paper, he seems like the consummate musician, and also rather traditional: he hits all the standard genres, and seemed quite talented with everything from solo piano works, voice, symphonic, concertante, even operas and choral works. Not even Brahms did opera. It also says something… that someone as staunch and opinionated (and genius talented) as Brahms was so moved by this young composer’s work, only eight years Dvořák’s senior.

One also wonders if that ‘break’ that he got in his career, making it big with The Bearded Wonder, was what saved him. One can see how many factors are at play: financial concerns, stress with work, how much that plays into confidence level (or doesn’t), the mindset to create, etc. Would Dvořák have eventually made it for himself without Brahms’s stepping in? Maybe, but maybe not.

So while we can all be mad at Brahms for quashing the career of the young Hans Rott, he certainly made a good judgment call on the young Czech composer called Antonín Dvořák, who became one of the most prolific, well-known composers (in almost everything) of the 19th century and into the 21st. We will be seeing more of his work this year, I hope. But this week, at least, we have two of his contributions to the genre of the tone poem.

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