Antonin Dvorak: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Antonin Dvorak

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Antonin Dvorak: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak: Overview

Antonin Dvorak: Antonin Dvorak (b. Nelahozeves, 8 Sept 1841; d. Prague, 1 May 1904).

Antonin Dvorak is without question the greatest of all Czech composers, and his contribution to the literature both of symphonic and chamber music ranks alongside that of the most commanding 19th-century masters. He was born in the small Bohemian village of Nelahozeves, on the banks of the Vltava, some fifty or so miles north of Prague. His father served the village both in the capacity of innkeeper and butcher, and Antonin Dvorak's son never lost his love of the countryside and its people. Indeed, contact with nature was as vital for him as it was for later artists such as Delius or Sibelius; and his work radiates a richness and generosity of feeling, tempered by a keen musical discipline that almost recalls Haydn. But if in terms of emotional equilibrium he recalls the classical masters, he must be numbered after Schubert, and along with his friend and contemporary, Tchaikovsky, as the most natural melodist of the 19th century. The fund of melodic invention on which he could call seems inexhaustible and its freshness and spontaneity undimmed. Brahms is reported to have come to Antonin Dvorak's defence on one occasion, when criticism of his work had been voiced, saying T should be glad if something occurred to me as a main idea that occurs to Antonin Dvorak only by the way.'

As a small boy he learned the violin, became a chorister in the church of his native village, played for the local orchestra, even composing marches and waltzes for it. When he was twelve, he was sent to the town Zlonice to learn German, and was fortunate enough to find an excellent mentor in the form of his headmaster, Antonin Liehmann, from whom he learned the piano, viola, organ as well as harmony and figured bass. In the autumn of 1857, when he was sixteen, he went to Prague to study at the organ school. Side by side with his studies and his exploration of the classical repertoire, he was succumbing to the spell of Wagner, and by the early 1 860s, Smetana, too, was a focal point of his admiration. He spent the bulk of the 1860s as an orchestral player, first in a small band conducted by Karel Komzak, and then later in the Czech National Opera Orchestra, which in the latter half of the decade was conducted by no less a figure than Smetana himself. Antonin Dvorak met with very little success at this time, if by success one means recognition, but he composed with energy, ruthlessly consigning the results to the flames. There is an A major String Quintet (1861), a Quartet in A (1862) which escaped destruction, as did the First Symphony in C minor {The Bells of Zlonice, 1865).

A Second Symphony in B flat followed a few months later, and even if the obvious models, Beethoven and Schubert, loom large, it is evident that Antonin Dvorak is flexing genuinely symphonic muscle, even if it is far from fully developed. However, neither the symphonies nor the other works (quartets in D major, B flat, the song cycle Cypresses, and an early 'cello concerto) were performed in public, and it was not until the 1870s that the tide began to turn in this respect. All this time, the struggling young composer was making his living as a violist with the Opera Orchestra, where he took part in the first performances of a number of Smetana operas including The Bartered Bride, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and Dalibor under Smetana's own direction, occasions that must have stoked the flames of his own operatic ambitions. These had undoubtedly been fired by contact with Wagner: Antonin Dvorak paid numerous visits to the German Theatre in Prague and probably attended virtually every Wagner performance there. He himself composed two operas at the beginning of the 1870s, Alfred and King and Collier, the overture to which Smetana conducted in 1872. Wagner's influence can be discerned in the two succeeding symphonies, No. 3 in E flat (1873) and No. 4 in D minor (1874).

Already in 1873 Antonin Dvorak left the Opera Orchestra to earn his daily bread by less onerous means as the organist of St Adalbert's church, Prague, a post that left him with far more time to compose. He had by now embarked on married life, and his domestic happiness, as well as his growing repute, unleashed a torrent of creative activity. Apart from the two symphonies came three quartets (Op.9, 12 and 16), a revision of King and Collier, a five-act opera called Vanda, the famous Serenade for strings, the relatively little played but eloquent Nocturne for strings, the G major String Quintet, and the marvellous F major Symphony (1875). By the end of the 1870s, the tide was beginning to turn in his affairs. He had already received the Austrian State Prize four years in succession, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of Brahms and Hanslick. Up to this point, recognition had been confined to Prague: was anxious to widen these boundaries and secure the dissemination of Antonin Dvorak's music on the continent at large. Simrock, Brahms' own publisher, was persuaded to take the Moravian Duets, Joachim introduced the Op. 48 String Sextet to Berlin, and this together with the Slavonic Dances that Simrock commissioned in 1878 carried Antonin Dvorak's name even further than Germany, into England with which country Antonin Dvorak was to have a long and fruitful association.

In September 1879 the third Slavonic Rhapsody was given in Berlin with great success and two months later, Antonin Dvorak went to Vienna to hear Richter conduct it there. As a result of this success he had to promise Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic a new symphony. The result followed in the summer of 1880 when the D major Symphony finally appeared. The D major Symphony is one of the very finest symphonies after : its first movement surpasses in breadth and power, and in the naturalness with which ideas are unfolded and grow, almost anything composed between the Great C major Symphony of Schubert and the D major Symphony of , which had been composed in 1877 and with which the Antonin Dvorak symphony naturally invited comparison.

The 1880s saw the composition of such works as the Scherzo capriccioso and the Hussite Overture as well as one of his most concentrated chamber works, the F minor Piano Trio. He was also busy writing for the stage and his opera, Dmitri ( 1881-82) was produced in Prague. In 1884 Dvofak made his first visit to London at the invitation of the Royal Philharmonic Society, conducting the D major Symphony, the second Slavonic Rhapsody and the Stabat Mater. His music has already made headway in England and audiences were enthusiastic, warming both to the new works and to the composer's delightful personality. It was for London that he composed a new symphony in D minor (No.7) presenting it at St James's Hall in April 1885 when it was immediately acclaimed. Antonin Dvorak's relationship with England may be said to dominate the next few years of his life. Between his first visit in 1884 and the first performance of his G major Symphony in 1890, he made no fewer than six trips, and much of his more substantial output was prompted by invitations and commissions from London and the provinces. The Spectre's Bride was written for Birmingham in 1885 and St Ludmilla followed it only a year later. He was beginning to feel the benefits of his celebrity and by 1884 was sufficiently in funds to buy a small country house, where he spent as much of his ensuing time as he could. His relationship with his publisher was beginning to show signs of strain and cast a shadow over a life, unusually harmonious in character.

Honours were being heaped on him at home: the University of Prague gave him an honorary doctorate of philosophy, and in 1891 he became Professor of composition at the Prague Conservatoire. That same year he made two further visits to England, one to conduct his Requiem at the Birmingham Festival and the other to receive an honorary doctorate at Cambridge.

In 1891 he received an invitation to head the recently founded New York National Conservatory of Music, which he at first declined. However, the offer was pursued with energy and persistence by the formidable American matriarch whose fortune had financed the Conservatory. Thus, in September 1892 Antonin Dvorak crossed the Atlantic and remained in the United States for the next three years. His vicissitudes in his dealings with Mrs Thurber, who was far from prompt in honouring her financial undertakings, were outweighed by his overwhelming nostalgia for the Czech countryside. His pen was far from idle, and apart from the E minor Symphony (From the New World j which was to become his most popular work, he wrote such masterpieces as the 'Cello Concerto, the F major Quartet, Op.96, and the even finer String Quintet in E flat, Op.97. In 1895 Antonin Dvorak returned to Prague making a visit to London, his ninth, in the following year when the 'Cello Concerto was heard for the first time. Restored to his more congenial environment, Antonin Dvorak set to work on a number of symphonic poems including The Wood Dove, The Golden Spinning- Wheel and The Noonday Witch and this period also saw the composition of the last of his string quartets, the G major Op. 106. His closing years were spent largely in operatic activity; The Devil and Kate and Russalka being the most important of his late stage works. In 1901, when he became sixty, he was appointed Director of the Prague Conservatory and continued his teaching activity. He died in the Czech capital in 1904.

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