Born: 8 September 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Died: 1 May 1904 in Prague
Dvořák did not come from a sophisticated cultural milieu; his father was an innkeeper and a butcher in a small town. But he did play the zither, and he and Dvořák’s mother encouraged their child’s musical talent (you may read elsewhere that Dvořák’s parents were unsupportive—not true!). The young Dvořák sang, played piano, organ, and violin, and performed at church and in the village band.
In 1857 he enrolled in the Prague Organ School, where he studied until 1859. Here he played viola in the Cecilia Society orchestra, which meant lots of exposure to choral music. After leaving the Organ School, he earned money teaching piano and playing viola in a dance band that became the core of the new Provisional Theater orchestra, where Dvořák was principal violist. In addition to playing for opera performances, they also did separate concerts, one of which Wagner conducted. In 1866 Smetana became the orchestra’s conductor, which was a valuable connection for Dvořák.
Throughout this early period Dvořák was constantly composing, and that was his focus once he left the orchestra in 1871. The next eleven years were a time of trying to create a reputation from his works, with income derived primarily from giving piano lessons and serving as a church organist from 1874 to 1877. He was refused a grant to study with Liszt in Leipzig, but he had success in other areas. A milestone in the growth of his renown was the successful performance in 1873 of a patriotic work for chorus and orchestra, his Hymn: The Heirs of the White Mountain. At this time Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Dvořák, turning away from the earlier influence of German compositional styles, increasingly wrote music that drew on Slavonic themes, folklore, and musical traits.
In 1875 he won an artist’s stipend from the Austrian State Stipendium. This was the first of several received, and over the next few years, via the Stipendium, his work became known to Johannes Brahms, one of the jurors for the organization. Brahms astutely recognized Dvořák’s immense ability and proved invaluable in connecting Dvořák to the publisher Simrock and other important figures on the international music scene. A key publication was his Slavonic Dances in their original piano four-hands version, appearing in 1878; this was wildly popular and worked magic in getting Dvořák’s name known (the work itself was inspired by Brahms’s equally successful Hungarian Dances). Soon his advocates included conductors such as Richter and von Bülow, the brilliant violinist Joseph Joachim, composers Liszt and Smetana (in addition to Brahms), and the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick (of disliking Wagner fame).
In 1883 Dvořák received the first of many invitations to England, continuing his now-rapid rise to international prominence. Various significant pieces were written for his visits to that country, including his gorgeous Stabat mater, and commissions, invitations to conduct, and publications were now the norm for the composer.
In 1891 Dvořák became Professor of Composition and Instrumentation at the Prague Conservatory, but by 1892 he was on his way to America. Philanthropist Jeanette Thurber had recruited him to serve as the Artistic Director and Professor of Composition at the National Conservatory of Music in America (founded in 1885) at a salary vastly greater than what he was receiving in Prague. Given Dvořák’s reputation as a nationalistic composer, Thurber was particularly interested in having Dvořák develop American composers in a similar capacity. Accordingly, Dvořák had his student Harry T. Burleigh introduce him to spirituals and folksongs, while music critic Henry Krehbiel provided transcriptions of Native American songs. Burleigh (1866–1949) went on to make significant contributions to American musical life; Eileen Southern, in The Music of Black Americans, describes him as “the first [black American] to achieve national distinction as a composer, arranger, and concert artist,” as well as someone who made a unique contribution to concert life through his elegant solo transcriptions of spirituals (concert spirituals had previously been for choral ensembles). Dvořák also taught the future composition teacher of Copland and Gershwin, as well as one of Ives’s teachers.
Success in America notwithstanding (he composed his Ninth Symphony as well as the glorious “American” String Quartet, Op. 96 while summering in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa), Dvořák was homesick, and when the National Conservatory entered rough financial waters in 1895, he returned to Prague and his position at the conservatory there. In 1901 he was appointed director of the conservatory, the same year he was made a member of the Austrian House of Lords—the first musician to be so honored. After returning to Prague he explored the genre of symphonic poem, and in his last years concentrated on opera. By the time of his death in 1904 he had more than made up for his slow start in composition, and had turned into one of the most famous composers in the world.
Te deum, Op. 103
On 27 September 1892 Dvořák and his family arrived in New York (or rather, most of his family arrived; the younger children stayed in Prague). With him he had the completed music for his latest work, the choral/orchestral Te deum, Op. 103 (Dvořák’s works have had various opus numbers assigned to them at different times; the Te deum was known earlier as both Op. 93 and Op. 98). Jeanette Thurber had asked Dvořák for a patriotic piece to form part of a concert celebrating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World, but a suitable text was not found in time and Dvořák wrote instead the Te deum (certainly a celebratory text on its own). Thurber did eventually find the patriotic text she was looking for, and Dvořák set it as The American Flag.
The Te deum was written between 25 June and 28 July 1892 for SATB chorus (each part divisi at some point), soprano and bass soloists, and orchestra of double winds plus English Horn, four French Horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, a percussion section of timpani, triangle, bass drum and cymbals, and five-part strings. The text is the famous praise to God from the Middle Ages; for more details, see the entry for the Handel Utrecht Te deum.
The celebratory Columbus concert took place at Carnegie Hall on 21 October 1892. The first part opened with Anton Seidl as conductor, with “My country ’tis of thee” followed by Liszt’s symphonic poem Tasso. Dvořák took over for the remainder of the concert, which consisted of his three concert overtures In nature’s realm, Othello, and Carnival, and then closed with the Te deum. Note that this purportedly religious piece premiered in a secular setting; by the close of the nineteenth century a good deal of music using sacred text was intended from the start for the concert hall rather than the liturgical service.
The concert was Dvořák’s first time conducting in the United States; the performance and the piece were a success, and his American sojourn was off to a good start. Nick Strimple calls the Te deum a “minor masterpiece” while claiming that the piece originally sought for the Columbus anniversary concert, “The American Flag,” is “barely an entertaining curiosity.” While the latter assessment may be a bit harsh, it is true that The American Flag has so far managed to avoid any kind of general popularity.
The Te deum text lends itself to a tripartite division: praise for God the Father, praise for Jesus Christ the Son, and specific prayers to the Lord. Dvořák, though, decided to mimic the standard symphonic layout of four movements (fast first movement, slow second movement, triple-meter scherzo, weighty final movement) and split the “prayer” section into two separate movements. In fact, he even moved the beginning of the prayer text up to the second movement (more on that below).
Movement 1 (Te deum laudamus)
The movement opens exuberantly, with two measures of rapid timpani strokes. We’re in G major, common time, with a tempo indication of “Allegro moderato maestoso.” The orchestra joins in with a cheerful introduction containing some of the motives the chorus will shortly explore. We enter at the pickup to m. 5, each vocal part in bright counterpoint. Our forte dynamics, the triadically-inspired vocal lines, and the firm adherence to G major makes for a joyful praise to the Lord. It’s not until m. 22 that we finally go beyond the home key. Here a short orchestral transition, with brass fanfares, takes us to a varied repeat of our opening text and its counterpoint, now transposed up to A major. As soon as we conclude that phrase we have a brief orchestral transition that contains more than a whiff of Meistersinger (mm. 35ff). We return to G major when we switch to the “tibi omnes Angeli” text at m. 38, but we retain our triadically-inspired melodies as we slowly move to more concerted motion: first with sopranos and altos moving together, then tenor and bass, and finally all four parts in homorhythm as the dynamic fades to ppp for an a cappella “sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.”
The contrasting “B” section of this movement enters with that same text, now sung by the soprano soloist who is the focus of this unit. Although the mood has changed, Dvořák connects us to the opening section by the continual insertion of motivic material from the opening. The tempo has slowed (Un poco meno mosso) and the choral writing (men’s voices only) is restricted to gentle murmurings when the soloist pauses. These murmurings use text we have already sung: “sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth”). They are always in homorhythm on repeated G major triads until the last one, beginning at m. 91, where the tenors jazz things up by moving to Bb for a G minor triad (the soprano soloist has already moved to minor herself). The soloist then leads us back to a truncated return of the exuberant opening material (m. 110, returning to tempo primo) which leads without pause into…
Movement 2 (Tu rex gloriae)
Movement 2 opens with more brass fanfares before the entrance of the bass soloist (whose range actually seems more that of a Verdi baritone). This is the “slow movement” of the symphonic structure, with a lento maestoso tempo. Although the meter hasn’t changed, the key has: we are now firmly in Eb major. This is very much a soloist’s movement; chorus is used quite sparingly, appearing in only two places when the soloist is resting: the women beginning in m. 42, the men in m. 62. However, we play a very important role textually. The men sing the text that is the beginning of the “prayer” component of the Te deum text, where we begin to implore God for his aid.
Having this text appear right before the third movement, which continues the prayer component of the Te deum, makes sense. However, the women sing exactly the same text, before the soloist has finished addressing Christ. So Dvořák has rearranged the text to suit his purposes, with women pleading first for divine assistance even before we’re supposed to reach that text (one wonders whether Dvořák was thinking about the challenges he was about to face on a new continent).
For this choral prayer the voices move together in soft dynamics; the men’s music is essentially a rearrangement of the women’s, now taking over some of the orchestral melody. Each section is more than a little reminiscent of Act I of Lohengrin (Dvořák, like almost every composer at the time, was not immune to Wagnerian influence). A very short orchestral passage brings the movement to a clear end after the men sing.
Movement 3 (Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis)
The third moment brings the focus back to the chorus. This is the “scherzo” of the symphony, with the expected triple meter, a return to a fast tempo (vivace), and a move to the minor mode, in this case b minor. Over an orchestral accompaniment of nonstop eighth note motion, each voice part sings the “aeterna fac” text by themselves and then drops out, first alto, then bass, then soprano, then tenor. We all come together in homorhythm at m. 39, where we snap out our text in short burst of static chords (and one massive melisma in octaves) until m. 70. This is a climax; even though we continue to share the same rhythms, we now have a much longer melodic line, harmonic motion, and a winding down dynamically until we fade out, leaving the basses alone at m. 84. As the orchestra moves to a quiet pulsing rhythm, we recreate the texture of the movement’s opening, with one part after another singing alone, this time in the order tenor, alto, bass, soprano. Then there’s a quick tenor/bass/tenor exchange, after which the orchestra slowly winds down the movement.
Movement 4 (Dignare Domine)
As with the transition from the first to the second movement, we move immediately to the finale without pause. The meter is back to 4/4 and the tempo has slowed to lento. We’ve also switched seamlessly to B major. And Dvořák has laid out his forces nicely. The first movement had the soprano soloist, the second the bass, the third no soloist, and now we have both soloists, although it is only towards the end that the bass is used. As with the second movement, the choral role is somewhat subsidiary. For most of the movement, our text is restricted to “miserere nostri Domine” (have mercy on us, Lord), presented as short outbursts when the soloist is silent. Sopranos and altos, who sing separately, have a little twitter-like motive in major; tenors and basses, who sing together, have a more substantial chordal statement in minor over a walking bass. Again, it’s noteworthy that Dvořák keeps repeating text that we’ve already heard.
The key switches to D major in m. 20, and then to C major in m. 37 (well, that’s the key signature anyway; Dvořák actually plays around harmonically for a while). M. 39 begins the long drive to the conclusion. The bass soloist now joins the soprano, the tempo slowly begins to pick up, and, notably, the text is now something new. The actual “Te deum” text ends with the phrase “non confundar in aeternum” (may I not be confounded for eternity) which the soprano soloist concludes in m. 32. Dvořák, though, did not want the piece to end on this not exactly positive note. Thus, for the remainder of the piece, Dvořák uses text that is not part of the Te deum proper. The soloists sing the versicle “Benedicamus Patrem et filium cum sancto spiritu” (we bless the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit), a line that, in the Catholic service, is sung after the conclusion of the Te deum. As for the chorus, while the orchestra brings back the jaunty motives from the first movement, we sing the word “Alleluia,” which has no connection whatsoever with any Te deum but nonetheless provides a joyful last word for this triumphant work, which has veered back to G major to end harmonically as we have begun.
And that is not the only thing that returns. When we are done singing, it’s the orchestra the provides an instrumental coda to the work, but one that essentially reiterates the thematic material from the Te deum’s introduction. In contrast to Brahms’s Schicksalslied, though, this orchestral conclusion feels right because we singers have ended conclusively in the same key and the same mood—the orchestra is simply an extension of our triumph.
A Personal Note
The last time I visited Prague I hoped to hear Czech music performed by Czech musicians. Since this was tourist season, unfortunately, the opera was offering only the old standbys Aida, Tosca, and Butterfly. But it was worth being in the absolutely gorgeous opera house anyway. And because in Europe the arts are actually supported by the government, unlike benighted places elsewhere in the world, the best seats in the house were only 60 euros. As another example of support: in Germany you can see an entire Ring Cycle for the price of a single ticket at the Met.
But back to the Prague opera house: this also features busts of the most famous Czech composers: Smetana, Dvořák, and Janáček. To emphasize that point, and in the interest of furthering your musical education, I include below a YouTube video of a fun canon I learned in graduate school from one of my classmates, back when Czechoslovakia was a country. The text is given below as well.
(A little more for your education, in case you didn’t already know: the diacritical mark over the “r” in Dvořák and the “c” in Janáček is called a Haček.)
I did end up getting to hear some Czech music by Czech musicians, however. The Municipal House had short daytime concerts in the Smetana Hall therein, and I attended one titled “The Best of Mozart and Dvořák” (Prague was an important city for Mozart, generating his brilliant Prague Symphony and the tricky Don Giovanni). The concert should probably have been called “Pieces by Mozart and Dvořák that even Tourists Wearing Shorts will have heard of,” but it was still terrific. The Dvořák chestnuts included “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” the famous Humoresque, and the Largo from the New World Symphony, among others. That last was a piece that I played in band growing up, and it was quite special to be from the New World myself, sitting in the Old World, listening to a piece that an Old World composer wrote in the New World about the New World, and because it was a piece I have known almost my entire life, it let me think warm and happy thoughts about my own life in music as a musicologist and as an amateur performer. And I also wanted to thank the musicians afterwards, who may well have been sick to death from playing Eine kleine Nachtmusick yet again to an audience they possibly considered a crop of tourist yokels—and yet they played as if we were royalty who deserved the very best of what they had to offer. I love, love, love the fact that professional musicians maintain such high standards no matter what the conditions of performance are. How fortunate we are that they do so!
Lots and lots and lots of delicious stuff here. Dvořák isn’t performed nearly as much as he should be, at least in the States. He’s best known for his orchestra and chamber works, but there are good things everywhere, and Rusalka is terrific.
Older readers may remember the following five symphonies numbered as 1–5 rather than 5–9. These were the only five symphonies published during Dvořák’s lifetime, hence the earlier set of numbers. But they are universally known now by the later numbering.
- Symphony No. 5 in F, Op. 76
- Symphony No. 6 in D, Op. 60
- Symphony No. 7 in dm, Op. 70
- Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88
- Symphony No. 9 in em, Op. 95 (From the New World)
- Piano Concerto in gm, Op. 33
- Violin Concerto in am, Op. 53
- Cello Concerto in bm, Op. 104
- The Water Goblin, Op. 107 (symphonic poem)
- The Noonday Witch, Op. 108 (symphonic poem)
- The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109 (symphonic poem)
- The Wood Dove, Op. 110 (symphonic poem)
- A Hero’s Song, Op. 111 (symphonic poem)
- In nature’s realm, Op. 91 (concert overture)
- Carnival, Op. 92 (concert overture)
- Othello, Op. 93 (concert overture)
- Slavonic Dances, Opp. 46 and 72 (originally for piano four-hands)
- Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op. 45
- Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22
- Serenade, Op. 44
- Legends, Op. 59 (originally for piano four-hands)
- Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66
- Symphonic Variations, Op. 78
- Piano Trio in fm, Op. 65
- Piano Trio in em, Op. 90 (Dumky Trio)
- String Quartet No. 10 in Eb, Op. 51
- String Quartet No. 11 in C, Op. 61
- String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (American)
- String Quartet No. 13 in G, Op. 106
- String Quartet No. 14 in Ab, Op. 105
- Piano Quartet in Eb, Op. 87
- Bagatelles, Op. 47
- Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81
- String Quintet in Eb, Op. 97
- String Sextet in A, Op. 48
- Stabat mater, Op. 58 (Dvořák’s most popular choral work)
- Te deum, Op. 103
- In nature’s realm, Op. 63 (the most famous of Dvořák’s part songs)
- The Spectre’s Bride, Op. 69 (cantata)
- St. Ludmila, Op. 71 (oratorio)
- Mass, Op. 86
- Requiem, Op. 89
- The American Flag, Op.102 (cantata)
- Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and 72, for piano four-hands (the original version)
- 8 Humoresques, Op.101 (#7 is the really, really famous one)
- Dumka, Op. 35
- Legends, Op. 59, for piano four-hands (the original version)
- The Devil and Kate
- Biblical Songs, Op. 99
- Gypsy Songs, Op.55 (No. 4 is the famous “Songs my mother taught me”)