Born Sept. 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)
Died May 1, 1904 in Prague, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic)
For Dvorak, classical music was a vehicle to express the character of a nation, and native folk melodies were important in his works. A passionate proponent of his homeland, as was Smetana before him, he continued to develop a Czech style, inspired by folk music as heard in Slavonic Dances, in symphonic poems inspired by Czech folklore, and in many songs. His father was a butcher as well as a professional zither player, who encouraged his son to also become a butcher. Fortunately for the son and for the world, Dvorak opted for a career of music, and not butchery.
From 1892 to 1895, Dvorak was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. While in America, he was zealous about discovering an American style of music. One of his students, Henry Burleigh (one of the earliest African-American composers), introduced him to black spirituals, which Burleigh later transcribed and collected with his teacher’s encouragement. Dvorak’s search for an American musical idiom culminates in his 9th and last Symphony, subtitled “From the New World.” While the themes are original, some show the inspiration of African-American and Native American melodies. This most American of symphonies is still a worldwide favorite, a recording of which was even taken to the moon in 1969 on Apollo 11. Dvorak encouraged American musicians to continue to search for a national style, influencing such composers as Amy Beach and William Grant Still. Aaron Copland also incorporated American folk tunes in his music, which helped further define an American style of music.
Dvorak was musically influenced and encouraged by his friendships with Brahms and Tchaikovsky. He composed in all genres, including operas, symphonies, chamber music, songs, symphonic poems, concerti, choral works and more. Deeply religious, Dvorak composed his largest choral work, Stabat Mater, at the death of his daughter; today it is often performed at Easter in the Czech Republic.
Listen to the 2nd Movement of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, “From the New World”: