08 Sep 2010

Composer of the Week – Antonin Dvorak

Happy Birthday to Czech composer Antonín Dvořák! (1841-1904) Dvořák is known for his lush Romantic music that is heavily influenced by the folk music of Bohemia, his native land.
Dvořák didn’t go to any posh music conservatory; instead, he went to the local music schools, and started his musical career playing viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra, which was conducted by another great Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana. After a decade of playing with the orchestra he took an organist position at a church in Prague which gave him more money, and more time to focus on his composing.
Here’s a piece from that time period, the first movement from his String Quintet No. 2.

We probably know Dvořák best for his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”, which he wrote during a three year period in which he was living in New York.
Here’s the fourth movement from the New World Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, von Karajan conducting.

While he was in New York, Dvořák focused on discovering the folk music of America and using that as the basis of American music, much like he had done with Bohemian folk music in his homeland. He felt that the Native American and African-American music traditions would be the basis of an American style classical music. He said of African-American spirituals:

“These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

And just for fun, because it’s one of my favorite pieces, here’s Rostropovich performing the third movement of Dvořák’s cello concerto.