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general characteristics

The musical legacy of Antonin Dvorak is one of the bastions of European cultural heritage. During his lifetime the composer became one of Europe’s most important symphonists and writers of oratorios and chamber works. From the 1880s onwards his music was performed by leading artists in the most celebrated venues of Europe, the United States, Canada, Russia and Australia. Towards the end of his life Dvorak was frequently described as the world’s greatest living composer.

On an international level Dvorak is the most performed Czech composer and the most famous artist the Czechs have ever produced. He laid the foundations for the Czech cantata and oratorio genres and was the first to acquaint Europe with modern Czech music on a much broader scale. Dvorak’s music – rooted in the Czech environment and, at the same time, international, traditional and yet modern in every era – has always had key significance for the perception of the Czech region in the context of European cultural history.

Dvorak’s position in music history (and arguably cultural history in general) is unique for the fact that he was one of the few artists who was able unequivocally to express a sense of human happiness in his work. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook another dimension to the composer’s oeuvre. A number of his works – often his most fundamental – are far removed from the sun-lit rural idyll frequently associated with Dvorak’s music. Symphony No. 7, the Requiem, Piano Trio in F minor and other opuses see Dvorak in quite a different light: as someone contemplating the sense of human existence, as a profound individual who had to work his way painfully towards inner equilibrium.

Dvorak’s commitments at the Prague and New York conservatoires, where he taught individuals who would later become fine composers themselves, were also an integral part of his legacy, as were his appearances as conductor: he conducted the premieres of a large number of his own works, and their numerous repeat performances, thus providing his own interpretation of the way a given work should sound. And then there was the symbolic role he played as a composer. At the end of the 19th century Dvorak’s works represented an entirely new historical situation: the Czech environment no longer felt the need to catch up with modern emancipated nations; on the contrary, it was itself capable of exporting European cultural values to the world beyond its borders.

For the people of today, crushed by the frenzied stampede of the 21st century and by the weight of ubiquitous, strident consumerism, Dvorak’s compassionate and gracious music may represent an anchor, an unassailable value, and also provide us with an opportunity to return to our roots.