Today is the birthday (1841) of Antonín Leopold Dvořák, Czech musician and composer. In some senses it might be more historically accurate to call him a Bohemian composer since he was born and lived in Bohemia, which later became part of Czechoslovakia, and is now the core of the Czech republic. But maybe, too, this is a quibble. His first language was Czech, and I doubt that he made a distinction between being Czech and being Bohemian. The first is an ethnic designation, the second, political. I’ll get into this nationalist stuff in a bit. It’s important. Rather than give a sketch of his whole life and work, I am going to focus on two themes: his boyhood and youth, and his status as a nationalist composer. The rest you can discover for yourself.
Dvo?ák was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, which was then in Bohemia, a state in the greater Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. His father František was an innkeeper and butcher, who also played zither professionally. His mother, Anna, was the daughter of Josef Zdenek, the bailiff of Prince Lobkowitz. From infancy Dvořák heard traditional music played by his father and by bands his father hired to play on Saturday nights for dances at the inn. It’s likely that his father’s repertoire was ethnically quite diverse because he learnt to play zither as a young man while traveling through Hungary.
His first music teacher was the church music director, who was also the one and only teacher of the elementary school there. This man, Josef Spic (or Spitz) was a typical example of the Czech “kantor,” a public school teacher and musician. Spic was also a competent composer in the style of Mozart and some of his works survive, although they were never performed. He taught Dvořák to play the violin and to sing, and from age 8 he sang in the local church choir.
It is well known that Dvořák had a great passion for trains and train timetables, and would sometimes go to stations just to see the trains arrive and depart. It’s possible that this fascination developed when he was a young boy when the rail line and station at Nelahozeves were being built, a huge event for the whole town. There is a tunnel through the cliff just to the south of the town, and the workers who built it were from Italy. They were experienced in building tunnels through the Alps and so were contracted to build this one. There is a report that after work they liked to gather around the Dvořák butcher shop and sing their traditional Italian songs, which the young boy would have heard.
Dvořák’s father was pleased with his son’s interest in music and so at the age of 13 he sent him to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonín Zdenek in order to get better training and to learn German, which was important for advancement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvořák took organ, piano, and violin lessons from his German language teacher Anton Liehmann. Liehmann also taught him music theory and introduced him to the composers of the time. Apparently Dvořák had great respect for his teacher even though he had a violent temper.
Dvořák took further organ and music theory lessons with Franz Hanke in the town of Ceská Kamenice, but they were cut short because money was tight at home and he had to return to help his father. Claims that he apprenticed as a butcher at this time are untrue, but he did help with the business. At the age of 16, the family business was earning enough that Dvořák’s father’s consented to him becoming a professional musician provided he could build a career as an organist. So he went to Prague to study at the city’s Organ School. During most of his studies he worked as a musician to support himself.
In 1858, he joined Karel Komzák’s orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague’s restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra. Dvořák played viola. In July 1863, Dvořák played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra. In 1864, Dvořák agreed to share the rent of an apartment located in Prague’s Žižkov district with five other people, including violinist Mořic Anger and Karel Cech, who later became a singer. The constant need to supplement his income pushed him to give piano lessons. It was through these piano lessons that he met his wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Cermáková, a rising actress. However, she never returned his love and ended up marrying into the nobility. In 1873 Dvořák married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna Cermáková. They had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy. By all accounts it was a happy marriage despite its seemingly odd beginnings.
Dvořák was also composing while performing and giving piano lessons. He produced his String Quintet in A Minor in 1861 and the 1st String Quartet in1862. In the early 1860s, he also made his first symphonic attempts, some of which he self-critically burned. For ten years he composed incessantly with almost no notice or public performances. His first publicly performed composition was the song Vzpomínání (October 1871, musical evenings of L. Procházka). Then in 1873 his cantata, Hymnus, brought him to public attention. The point I want you to take from this is that Dvořák struggled in obscurity and poverty for more than 13 years to achieve recognition, and during that period he was intensely self critical. The fame he garnered subsequently was founded on the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” – something I greatly admire.
In the following decades Dvořák went from success to success with an increasingly international following. He was seen, in large measure, as a nationalist composer because of his frequent use of Bohemian and Moravian traditional dance and song melodies in his compositions. As such he was part of a large and growing group of European composers thought of as embodying the ethos of their respective ethnic origins. The reason for this movement lies within the nationalist politics of 19th century Europe. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna (1815) carved Europe into a series of states whose purpose was to create a balance of power that would prevent further wars by making it impossible for one nation to gain outright military supremacy. I suppose the aim was laudable, but the methods were questionable, and ultimately it was a dismal failure. To create large power blocs, hundreds of ethnic groups were folded into larger entities such as Austria-Hungary. Almost immediately these groups sought autonomy, and the history of 19th century Europe is, by and large, the history of the struggle for these groups to break away from outside governance. In 1848, when Dvořák was 7, almost all of Europe erupted in ethnic revolution, and these tensions continued all of his life. His music was received as a contribution to the establishment of Czech/Bohemian national identity.
There is no question that the notion of creating a national “voice” was dear to Dvořák’s heart, but it was not confined to Bohemia: his interests were global. From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, at a then staggering $15,000 annual salary. The Conservatory had been founded by a wealthy and philanthropic socialite, Jeannette Thurber; it was located at 126–128 East 17th Street (the building has since been demolished if you had plans to go looking).
One of Dvořák’s goals in the United States was to discover “American Music” and engage in it, much as he had used Czech idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 1892, he wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of “American” music. He supported the concept that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of “American” music. It was in New York that Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, his pupil at the time and one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional spirituals. He wrote, “Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper … I gave him what I knew of Negro songs—no one called them spirituals then—and he wrote some of my tunes (my people’s music) into the New World Symphony.”
In the winter and spring of 1893 Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No.9, “From the New World,” which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl and was wildly successful from the beginning. It is undoubtedly his most popularly known work. Its Largo has been used in a variety of contexts from songs to movie scores. I don’t really want to generate a debate as to whether the New World is genuinely “American” music. Music historians, with nothing better to do, argue even now over whether it is more “American” or more “Bohemian.” Such debates bore me. What does engage my interest is the fact that for the second half of the 19th century serious music was taken as a legitimate vehicle for social and political unification. A great many national anthems were born in this crucible and have the power to stir people’s souls profoundly. In the interests of fair disclosure I will say that I have little time for nationalism or patriotism. They seem to breed war and not much else. The question I ask (without any simple answer) as an anthropologist, is “why music?” What is it about music in particular, and highly sophisticated music at that, which makes a Czech’s soul swell with pride? It is immensely powerful.
Dvořák died from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness, at the age of 62, leaving many unfinished works. His funeral service was held on May 5, attended by tens of thousands. His death notices covered the entire front pages of Czech newspapers. His ashes were interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, beneath a bust by Czech sculptor Ladislav Šaloun.
To celebrate Dvořák’s life I have chosen a recipe for kulajda, a traditional Bohemian soup of cream, mushrooms, egg, dill and potatoes. The combination of dill and mushrooms is superb. Dill for me is the savor of the Slavs.
8 cups vegetable or other light stock
1 lb (500 g) potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, hard boiled, sliced
1 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
3 tbsps white vinegar
1 tbsp caraway seed
knob of butter
Bring the stock to a boil and add the potatoes. Reduce to a simmer and cook for ten minutes, then add the mushrooms, caraway seeds, and salt to taste.
Whisk together the milk and cream with the flour. Be especially careful to ensure there are no lumps. Pour this mixture into the soup in a steady stream while stirring vigorously. When it has all been incorporated, simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
Add the chopped dill, stir and remove from the heat. Add the vinegar by the tablespoon while stirring.
Place the soup in a tureen a place a small cube of butter on top and slices of hard-boiled egg,
Serve with dark rye bread.
Yield: 6 – 8 portions