Dvořák’s path to finding an individual musical style was not easy. In his youth, he first exhibited a strong interest in the music of Viennese Classicism, but later on he was seduced by the most modern advances of German Neo-Romanticism. Another important influence on his compositional style was the folk music had been in close contact with since childhood. Once he turned 30, all of the stimuli he had absorbed combined almost miraculously with his own musical imagination and nearly boundless inventiveness, giving rise to his own peculiar, inimitable musical language.
Dvořák aged 13–19
first attempts at composition
Dvořák’s first surviving attempts at composition, dating from the latter half of the 1850s, correspond to the stage he had reached in his musical development at that time. These pieces are short piano polkas written in the spirit of the period conventions; the organ preludes and fugues were school assignments which do not betray any artistic ambition, their sole purpose being to demonstrate in practice the extent to which the pupil had mastered the study material.
Dvořák aged 20–27
The most important compositions from Dvořák’s early period are his first two symphonies, the String Quintet in A minor and the String Quartet in A major. Given his previous lack of experience in the composition of major forms, these works are remarkable. They all betray a surfeit of invention which had yet to be credibly exploited. The works reveal the influence of the Viennese classics, particularly Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart, yet they also already show signs of Dvořák’s subsequent characteristic language.
Dvořák aged 28–30
Dvořák’s works from the end of the 1860s and beginning of the 1870s are strongly influenced by his then fascination for German Neo-Romanticism. Dvořák applied the principles of Wagner’s opera reform and Franz Liszt’s music not only in his first opera Alfred, but also in three string quartets originating from the same period. These are highly avant-garde works which, according to certain musicologists, anticipate the musical language of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. They have complex harmonies, “endless” melodies and a generally agitated expression. The works from this period seldom see the light of day and are rarely performed; his opera Alfred only came out in print in 2014.
Dvořák aged 31–36
forging his own unique style
The mid-1870s witnessed the most important turning-point in Dvořák’s entire musical development. After years of searching, the composer was now able to crystallise his distinctive compositional style, laying down the foundations for his typical means of expression. Certain works from the beginning of this period still betray elements of his previous developmental phase (e.g. in Symphony No. 3 in E flat major), while works from the last few years of this period may now be described as wholly “Dvořákian” (e.g. Stabat Mater or Serenade in E major). This was also the period in which the composer began significantly to increase his output and enjoy his first successes on the concert platform.
Dvořák aged 37–39
As Czechs were striving for national emancipation, a number of artists began to show an inclination towards folklore. In Dvořák’s case these tendencies were all the more spontaneous for the fact that he came from a rural environment and folk music was essentially very much a part of him. In line with the Pan-Slavic ideal which was vigorously supported in Czech society at that time, Dvořák also sought inspiration beyond his home environment and looked to the music of other Slav nations. Moreover, he had external motivation to do so: when, having witnessed the success of the Moravian Duets, publisher Fritz Simrock sensed commercial potential in this unknown composer, he asked Dvořák to write a series of “Czech-Slav” dances. The phenomenal success of Slavonic Dances encouraged Dvořák to write other works in a similar spirit. Apart from the two works mentioned above, this period produced the Slavonic Rhapsodies, the “Slavonic” String Quartet, Czech Suite and many other compositions which, while they might not contain the words “Slavonic” or “Czech” in their titles, in character they may be readily assigned to this group: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, etc. Dvořák did not use specific folk melodies but, through his unique invention, he was able to convey their typical traits in his own distinctive works. These include melodic lines in parallel thirds or sixths, the use of “bagpipe fifths” in the bass line, the frequent exposition of thematic material in the clarinet (the instrument featuring prominently in Czech village bands), the so-called Moravian modulation down a major second, harmonic oscillation between same-note major and minor keys, among others. From this period onwards Dvořák moreover began to incorporate movements or independent pieces entitled “furiant” and “dumka” into his works. The furiant is a Czech folk dance in fast tempo with an irregular metre (alternating two-four and three-four bars), while the dumka was originally a Ukrainian song form, whose melancholic character Dvořák generally contrasted with a fast section. The compositions from his Slavic period assured Dvořák his first successes on the international scene and they remain some of his most frequently performed works to this day.
Dvořák aged 40–51
During the early part of this period Dvořák began to enjoy greater familiarity outside German-speaking countries as well. One of the defining moments was the huge success of Stabat mater in London as the cornerstone of the Dvořák cult in England. A series of works were commissioned by English music institutions. By this stage Dvořák was a mature, self-confident composer at the height of his career with a broad palette of expressional means at his disposal, and he had now mastered all the components of the composition process. In his works he achieved the ideal fusion of the modern European musical idiom and his own distinctive invention. He produced a large number of major works universally recognised as masterpieces of their era, in particular: Symphony No. 7 in D minor and Symphony No. 8 in G major, Piano Quintet in A major, the cantata The Spectre’s Bride, the second series of Slavonic Dances, Mass in D major and Requiem. For the Czech National Theatre he wrote the opera The Jacobin which would become his second most performed stage work. With this international renown came an offer at the end of this period to take up the post of director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York.
Dvořák aged 52–54
Dvořák’s time in the United States introduced a series of new impulses into his work, both in purely musical, and psychological terms. In addition to the radical change in his environment the composer was strongly influenced by the music of African Americans and Native Americans, which he treated as he had done earlier in the case of Slavonic folk music: he was inspired by their characteristic traits to write several distinctive works whose original musical language is usually clearly distinguishable after just a few bars. In works from his American period Dvořák adhered to traditional music forms (symphony, string quartet, string quintet, instrumental concerto), whose melodic, harmonic and rhythmical structures were enhanced by new elements: the pentatonic scale, syncopation, drum rhythms and the use of the minor seventh in a minor scale. Several of these elements had already appeared in the composer’s works earlier on, but it was only in this period that Dvořák applied them to a much greater extent, in a focused endeavour to create a new, “American” expression; these elements were then added to his range of compositional devices. The works that were written during the composer’s time in America are some of the most frequently performed, not only from Dvořák’s oeuvre, but in terms of the world repertoire in general.
Dvořák aged 55–63
Dvořák’s final period saw the composer moving towards opera and programme music. For his musical treatment he chiefly sought fairy-tale motifs and fanciful themes illustrating supernatural phenomena. Works from this point in his career demonstrate the peak of Dvořák’s instrumentation mastery and his ability to express dramatic situations purely through musical devices. In his operas he again found inspiration in the principles of Wagner’s dramas which – unlike the composer’s experiments from the late 1860s and early 1870s – were now organically incorporated into the framework of Dvořák’s musical language. The masterpiece from this period is the opera Rusalka, which would secure the composer a leading position on the world’s opera stages after his death. In his last completed work, the opera Armida, Leoš Janáček noted the beginning of a new shift in Dvořák’s style. Shortly after its premiere, however, Dvorak passed away.