The Romantic Period was one of the busiest times for composers. Music was becoming more of a demand for the public as concerts were becoming more accessible to the public.
Music of the past was also being performed more often. Composers were taking advantage of techniques used in the past. Composers such as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Hector Berlioz were all busy during this time composing some of the most famous works of music and songs we know today.
Another composer who came later in the Romantic Period and made a big impact with his composing and teaching was Czech composer Antonin Leopold Dvorak (1841-1904). This paper will give a brief account of his life, how he came to be a composer and a teacher, as well as focusing in on his three-year tenure teaching at the National Conservatory of Music here in the United States and also analyze his biggest work that paid tribute to his time here, “Symphony no.
9,” also known as “The New World Symphony.”
Before digging into his time here in the United States, we need to look at how Dvorak came to be the composer, instrumentalist, and teacher he grew up to be. Born on September 8th, 1941 in the town of Nelahozeves; which was part of the Austrian Empire, Dvorak was the first of his 9 siblings to be born into his family. His family had a long line of family members who were innkeepers and even butchers. However, the Dvorak family also had a talent for something else, and that was music.
This talent wasn’t used very widely by the family, however. They mostly used it to brighten up their daily routines and also as a way of making some extra money on the side. It didn’t take Antonin’s parents long to see that music would influence him more than they could ever imagine. Compared to everyone else in his family, Dvorak became more and more prolific with music. When his father saw this, he decided to send him to a local school and music teacher, Josef Spitz in the year 1847. While under Spitz’s wing, six-year-old Dvorak learned to play violin and mastered it. He then took this talent and used it in performances at the dances the villages held. Shortly after this, he gave his first solo performance on violin in the church that was serving the neighboring village of Veprek. In the year 1853, shortly after his family moved to the nearby town of Zlonice, Dvorak began to learn the basics of harmony and how to play the organ from his new teacher and multi-instrumentalist, Antonin Lehmann. After becoming virtuosic at the organ, his teacher allowed him to play the instrument during the Mass at the local church. It was also during the time he lived in this town where Dvorak composed his first composition, which was a series of simple polkas. The first of these was composed around the year 1855. The first composition he composed was for piano and entitled the “Forget-me-not Polka in C.” Dvorak’s early compositions are not that well known, and some were never even performed. The reason for this is that Dvorak destroyed the scores for the pieces he felt were not fit to be performed publicly.
In 1861, Dvorak would compose his first two works that he thought were fit for public performance. These were also the pieces that would set him on the track to becoming one of the most prominent and famous composers of his time. These two compositions came in the form of “String Quartet in A Minor Opus 1” and “String Quartet in A Major Opus 2.” These two works were only the beginning of a long and prosperous composing career for Dvorak. In 1865, we would see the first symphony to come from Dvorak be composed. This first symphony was entitled “Symphony no. 1 in C Minor” with the subtitle “The Bells of Zlonice.” While composing this work, Dvorak took inspiration from the early portion of the Romantic period and the style that came from t. Composers in the Romantic period were known for composing music using inspirations from the past, and Dvorak was no different. For this symphony, he took inspiration from the works of Ludwig van Beethoven and well as Felix Mendelsohn. Out of the nine symphonies that Dvorak composed, this is the only one he never heard performed live. He also never got a chance to revise the score to make it better. It didn’t receive its first performance until 1936, 32 years after his death. This work contains four movements and follows a similar key progression to that of Beethoven’s “Symphony no. 5 in C minor,” beginning in C minor in the first movement, going to Ab major in the second movement, then to Eb major in the third movement, and finally C Major in the final movement. It’s too bad that Dvorak never got to hear this symphony be performed. I believe it is in the top five best works from him. In the year 1870, Dvorak would compose his first opera, entitled “Alfred.” This work took Dvorak a total of five months to complete as he worked between May and October on this opera. This opera however didn’t become well known until after his death. The overture for this opera was performed in the year 1905 and the full opera wasn’t performed for the first time publicly until 1938.
In the year 1877, Dvorak would begin to gain his international reputation after he entered the Austrian Prize Competition with his Moravian Duets, composed for piano and two voices. A few months after the competition, in December, Dvorak received a letter from Eduard Hanslick; one of the leading music critics at the time. He was on the jury panel at the competition and the letter informed Dvorak that one of the biggest composers at that time, Johannes Brahms, was also on that jury. Dvorak didn’t even realize who he was presenting the Moravian duets to until he got this letter. The two thoroughly enjoyed his Moravian Dances and Brahms had recommended this work to be published through his publishing company, Simrock. In December, Dvorak would then compose his “String Quartet no. 9 in D Minor,” also known as the “Brahms Quartet.” Dvorak dedicated this work to Brahms after he helped him gain a foothold in building an international reputation. Dvorak would compose several more works of music through the Simrock publishing company. An example of one of those works was composed in 1878 and entitled “Slavonic Dances.” Instead of this being one long work, Slavonic Dances is comprised of 16 orchestral pieces. Originally composed for piano four hands, this work was inspired by Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. It was also requested to be orchestrated by Dvorak’s publisher shortly after it was composed. Thanks to the liveliness and natural character that Slavonic Dances contained, it made for one of the most enjoyable and memorable works to come from Dvorak and it can still be heard today in some popular culture.
Dvorak’s career began to take an even better turn in 1880 when he composed his religious cantata entitled Stabat Mater. Three years later on March 10th, 1893, it was debuted at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. The piece was met with widespread acclaim from critics and began a long series of performances in both Great Britain as well as the United States. Because of this performance, Dvorak was invited to come back to London one year later in 1884. When called back, he was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society to conduct concerts there. Conducting concerts was not the only thing Dvorak did while he was in London however, he also composed and premiered some new works during his tenure there. His Symphony no. 7 is a good example of one of these works. It was composed in the year 1885 and premiered at the James Hall in April of that year. This symphony is part of what I like to call Dvorak’s “big-three symphonies” as this is one of them that shows Dvorak’s composing abilities at their finest. Symphony no. 7, Symphony no. 8, and Symphony no. 9 are part of this trilogy of symphonies and each one shows off a different part of Dvorak’s personality. Symphony no. 7 consists of the traditional 4-movement layout for symphonies with movement titles including; Allegro Maestoso, Poco adagio in F Major, Scherzo Vivace, and Finale: Allegro. The piece is keyed in D minor and is in total around 40 minutes long. This work is also considered by many to be Dvorak’s greatest symphony, despite it not being near as popular playing-wise as his 9th symphony.
Over the next few years, Dvorak’s international reputation would continue to grow as his works were becoming even more popular, not just in Europe, but in other parts of the world as well, more specifically in the United States. In the year 1891, the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, Jeannette Thurber, asked Dvorak to come over to the United States to teach at her school. She gave Dvorak an offer he couldn’t refuse with a $15,000 a year salary, which is over $400,000 in today’s money. This is also about 25 times more than what Dvorak made in Prague. If he came to teach at her school, there were three conditions for him: he had to work six days a week on regular hours at her school, could only teach; to quote Thurber; “The most talented pupils,” and finally; he had to conduct concerts at the school. Dvorak and Thurber negotiated for months on end to strike a deal to allow him to come to the United States and that finally happened in the year 1892. Dvorak arrived in New York to begin what would be a three-year tenure at the Conservatory and would spend from 1892 to 1895 teaching here in the United States. The first year he spent at the conservatory was a great experience for Dvorak. He was making the promised salary of 15,000 dollars and giving aspiring musicians a great deal of knowledge. In 1893 however, things began to go awry. The Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression, caused Dvorak’s annual salary to be cut down to $8000 a year, which is just over $200,000 in today’s money. Over the next two years, Dvorak would also begin to get homesick and miss not only his home country but also all the recognition he was getting in Europe. All these things combined to influence Dvorak to leave New York and return to his home in the Czech Republic in the year 1895. So, Dvorak took his wife and their two kids and returned there that year. Despite the setbacks of a cut salary, a busy teaching schedule, and homesickness, nothing stopped Dvorak from doing what he did best, composing some great music for the public to listen to.
During the time between 1891-1895, before and during his time at the Conservatory of Music, Dvorak composed some of the best works of his career. An example of one of these works comes from the year 1891, just a few months before he left for the United States. Dvorak composed a trilogy of overtures entitled “Nature, Life, and Love.” The movements for this work are as follows and entitled “In Nature’s Realm, “Carnival”, and “Othello.” This was the very last work that Dvorak composed in his home country before he began his adventure in the United States. According to program notes from a Chicago Symphony Concert, it states that “He conceived of the three pieces called Nature, Life, and Love, and they are unified by a lovely, languid theme representing nature. Dvorak later agreed to publish them separately – as In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello never dreaming that the middle one would become a great audience favorite at the expense of the other two.” I can see why the second of these pieces have become the audience favorite as the second movement, “Carnival,” is jam-packed with exciting melodic content, challenging and complex rhythms, and very high replay value from both the player and the listener. After listening to the other two portions of this piece, I think that this is one of Dvorak’s best works, even if the other two movements aren’t played near as often as the second one is. This series of overtures was a good way for Dvorak to go out before he came to the United States, and into a new country that would inspire him to compose what is, in my opinion, his greatest work of all, “Symphony no. 9 in E Minor,” also known as, “From the New World.”
Once Dvorak entered the United States in 1892, he was forced to begin the daunting task of getting acquainted with his new and unfamiliar surroundings. Shortly after his arrival, inspiration struck Dvorak from all the feelings he had gotten for the beauty of the New World. Because of these feelings that came over Dvorak, he began sketching together his tribute to the New World in the form of his now-famous owndeserves now “Symphony no. 9 in E Minor,” also known by its subtitle “From the New World.” Before beginning to analyze this work, an understanding of his inspirations needed to compose this masterpiece needs to be put into place. During his time in the United States, Dvorak gained a liking for Native-American music as well as the African American spiritual songs he had heard there. During his time as director of the National Conservatory of Music, he became friends with African-American student Harry T. Burleigh, who would also become a composer. Dvorak and Burleigh spent time together talking about these Spiritual songs. He even sang their melodies to Dvorak and he took every single one of them in. Burleigh said that Dvorak “had absorbed their spirit before writing his ownnow-famous melodies.” Dvorak himself also said, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro Melodies. 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.” Dvorak couldn’t have hit the nail on the head any better than he did with this quote. American folk hymns such as these have the unlimited potential to inspire great works of music, just like his “New World Symphony.” The symphony was performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on December 15th, 1893 A day after the Symphony was premiered to a critically acclaiming crowd and roaring applause from that crowd, an article was published by the New York Herald Newspaper about the Symphony and Dvorak himself was personally interviewed. In that interview, he gave a further explanation as to how the Nativ American Music inspired aspects of his Symphony. In his statement, he says, “I have not used any of the Native American melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint during, and orchestral color.” It is truly amazing how much these Spiritual melodies that Dvorak heard in his time here in the United States inspired him to compose such a beautiful and outstanding work of music. The New World Symphony was Dvorak’s Tribute to the United States and I believe that his inspiration from these melodies is what makes the Symphony so special.
“From the New World,” contains the traditional Fuocoduringfour-movement layout that Symphonies are known for. Movement 1 – Adagio, Allegro Molto, begins in the key of E Minor and has varying time signatures throughout as well. The two main ones that are used in this movement are 2/4 and 4/8 time. Movement 2 – Largo, is probably my favorite movement of the symphony. It stays in a single time signature the entire duration of the movement, in this caseFuocofour-movement, common time; and changes key signatures multiple times. The movement begins in the key of E Major and then moves to Db Major in the section where the English Horn has the first solo and main idea for the movement. Later, it moves to the key of C# minor, the relative minor to Db Major. Movement 3 – Scherzo: Molto Vivace – Poco Sostenuto, also contains a single time signature, this time ¾, and goes back to the key the piece began in, E Minor. Movement 4 – Allegro con fuoco, brings the Symphony to a dramatic close with its fast-moving tempo. It contains a single time signature also, common time. The movement also changing key signatures. The movement begins in E Minor and transitions to the relative major, E Major, to bring the piece to its close. These elements combined very well together to create a great work of music. Dvorak didn’t hold back with complexity and uniqueness when he composed this symphony and it hasdeserves the title of not only one of the most beautiful works of music composed but possibly one of the greatest works of art to come from the Romantic period of music.
Antonin Dvorak was truly a master when it came to composing music. Even when he was busy teaching, he found time to write some of the most memorable and beautiful pieces of music anyone can listen to. When he composed the New World Symphony, I don’t even think he realized how influential of a piece of music it would become worldwide. It is one of his most performed works today and has become a favorite amongst listeners, players, and composers alike. Even after he died in 1904, Dvorak and his music are still adored by people worldwide today. He truly has left a mark on history as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic Period.