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Music / Antonín Dvořák

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Antonín Dvořák (to avoid possible embarrassment, it's D(ə)-VOR-zha(h)k, not Dvor-rak) (8 September 1841 — 1 May 1904). The most famous of Czech composers, Dvořák's musical idiom is infused with the traditions of his native Bohemia. In addition to this musical nationalism, Dvořák also exemplified many other characteristics of the late Romantic period, including writing for large orchestras, lush melodies, and powerful, emotional climaxes. The influence of Johannes Brahms shows on Dvořák in that Dvořák declined to assign programs to his symphonies and often used classical forms. On the other hand, the Wagnerian influence also strongly manifests itself in Dvořák, especially in the tone poems and operas. Dvořák, a prolific composer, created works in almost all genres. These include 9 symphonies, a piano, cello and violin concerto, 10 operas, numerous religious works, 14 string quartets and other chamber works, and many attractive small scale pieces like the Slavonic Dances. These 16 short pieces based on Bohemian folk music styles helped launch Dvořák's career and were inspired by Brahms's similar Hungarian Dances.

His most popular work is by far Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World"). The sublime "Largo" (Listen here) from this symphony has become a popular Standard Snippet. He wrote it while staying in the United States, during which he studied and admired African American spirituals. Many scholars have argued that the thematic materials of the symphony are in fact based on spirituals, though Dvořák always denied this. Music from the exciting and powerful Allegro con fuoco ending movement of this symphony was later stolen by John Williams for use in Jaws, though these days it may be better known for its use in one of the climactic battles of the anime One Piece. Ironically, the use of the "Largo" in adverts by British bread manufacturer Hovis has led to be it being regarded as a leitmotif for Yorkshire in the UK.note 

His other two popular symphonies are Symphony No. 7 in D minor (1885), Op. 70 and Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88. The latter contains another lovely slow movement. All of Dvořák's symphonies are worth checking out, though the last three are the ones most often performed and recorded. note 

His Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 is arguably the greatest work for that instrument. Dvořák again wrote this work while in America. The Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33 and Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 are both excellent, attractive pieces, though not as distinguished as the cello concerto.

Of the 10 operas Dvořák wrote, only Rusalka, Op.114, first performed in 1901, has found modern day success. Essentially, Rusalka is a Slavic version of "The Little Mermaid", where our heroine Rusalka is a Czech water sprite who lives in a lake instead of an ocean (there being no oceans in Bohemia, of course). Falling in love with a human prince, Rusalka wishes to become human, and goes to the Witch in order to do so. The Witch demands that Rusalka must give up her voice, and this being an opera we know this is a terrible thing to do. The Prince quickly becomes disenchanted with the mute Rusalka, falling instead in love with the evil, manipulative Foreign Princess. This being an opera, there is no happy ending. Betrayed, Rusalka returns to her lake, but refuses the option to undo everything by killing the Prince, so she becomes a vengeful spirit of death. The Prince arrives. He and Rusalka sing a ravishing love duet, at the end of which they kiss, the Prince accepting the kiss of death from her as his penance. The Prince indeed dies, and Rusalka returns to the bottom of the lake, lost forever to her family in the lake proper.

The opera shows the influence of Richard Wagner regarding subject, themes, and music. Dvořák employed a story from his national mythology, and likewise focused on overwhelming passionate love and betrayal ending in orgasmic death. Musically, the opera shows Wagner's influence in using leitmotifs, evocative nature portraits, and sensual love duets. The most famous music from the opera is Rusalka's "Song to the Moon." You can listen to the lovely Renee Fleming sing it here. This aria is featured in the movie Driving Miss Daisy.

Dvořák's music has an immediately attractive, deep soulful quality that has made him one of the most popular of composers. One of the last composers of the Romantic era, he contributed immeasurably to the world's treasure of music. Dvořák's salient feature, the characteristic that makes him beloved today, was his magical talent for creating very many very beautiful melodies. Perhaps only Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky can be said to equal Dvořák in this respect.

He was distantly related to alternate keyboard layout inventor August Dvorak (who pronounced his name as it was written in English), and may or may not have been related to film actress Ann Dvorak (she claimed to have distant relatives with the name Dvorak, and found it more attention-grabbing than her birth name of Anna McKim).

Tropes present in Dvořák's life and works:

  • Forced to Feel Empathy: His symphonic poem The Wild Dove is based on a poem of the same name from Kytice, a collection of ballads by Karel Jaromír Erben. It tells the story of a woman who poisoned her first husband to death and then remarried. One day, a dove appears by her husband's grave and makes the same sad cooing sounds every day. She is eventually so overwhelmed by her guilt that she ends up drowning herself.
  • Happily Married: Unlike many other composers, Dvořák's marriage was from all accounts a happy one.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The composer's work is strongly nationalist in nature, reflecting his Czech heritage in its use of rhythm and melody, as well as its opera subjects and symphonic poem programs. Examples include the opera Rusalka, the first book of Slavonic Dances, the tone poem The Water Goblin, and the various Furiants and Polkas for solo piano.
  • Rail Enthusiast: Dvořák was a dedicated early trainspotter, going to watch trains every day in Prague and taking notes of their numbers; during his stay in New York City, he temporarily switched his hobby to ship-spotting. The rhythm of Humoresque Nr. 7 is said to be derived from the rhythm of a train on railway tracks. (This is in Central Europe, where tracks are different than in the USA, so the rhythm differs from the American railroad staples.)
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Dvořák was a devout Catholic and saw his faith as the cornerstone on which he built his life and work. He composed many sacred works, like his Requiem; St. Ludmilla, an oratorio about the Czech saint of the same name; and Biblical Songs, a song cycle he composed for his consolation based on ten excerpts from the Psalms he hand-picked.
  • Romanticism: Dvořák's music definitely qualifies as this, though his work straddles both sides of the "War of the Romantics". He composed operas and tone poems that showed kinship to works by Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, but also wrote absolute music (non-programmatic symphonies and chamber music) with notable influence by Johannes Brahms. This last composer was a generous mentor, significantly helping establish Dvořák's reputation.
  • Standard Snippet: Several examples. The English horn melody from the second movement of Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World") was turned into the Black spiritual-influenced song "Goin' Home" (lyrics added by Dvořák's student William Arms Fisher), while the fourth movement of the same symphony became synonymous with "The Ring General" WALTER. The main melody to the Humoresque No. 7 for piano solo has often been used in cartoons and similar popular media to depict lighthearted insouciant moods, most notably as Slappy Squirrel's theme from Animaniacs; it also acquired humorous lyrics that were widely quoted back in the 1930s and 40s regarding passenger train toilets: "Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is standing still within the station house."
  • Travelogue Show: Or travelogue piece in this case. Dvořák was named director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, serving in that capacity from 1892 to 1895. While living there, he spent significant time discovering American music, especially that by African-Americans. Several of his compositions from the time show this influence, most notably his Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World") and the String Quartet No. 12 in F major ("American"). Dvořák also wrote several solo piano works based on Polish dances such as the mazurka and polonaise.