The fixed notion of Dvořák as a composer who could simply “bash out” new music without great effort and intellectual reflection is far from the truth. The sense of casualness that listeners appreciate in the majority of his works was in many cases the result of an intense period of soul searching.
Dvořák rewrote a lot of his musical pieces, some of them several times before he was satisfied with the end result. Conversely, other works were preceded by intensive deliberation before he even began composing. The fact that he destroyed some of his compositions whose quality he was not happy with testifies to his high level of self-criticism. On the other hand, there is evidence indicating that a number of his works were composed within a remarkably short space of time.
The manner in which Dvořák worked does little to suggest the conduct of a romantic artist writing his music while in a state of ecstasy, having suffered the blows of fate. The composer would get up in the ‘unromantic’ early hours and, after his usual morning stroll, he would settle down to start his work. He composed for several hours in the morning and afternoon, sticking to this routine with almost iron regularity. Sometimes, he also composed during his travels.
Dvořák noted down his ideas immediately on loose sheets of paper or in his music score sketchbook; when he had no paper handy, he would even use the cuffs of his shirt sleeves. His composition work was almost constantly on his mind, making him distrait; on occasion, he would walk off in the middle of a conversation without so much as saying goodbye.
When composing a new piece of music, Dvořák would always start with a brief sketch that he would then score and expand on in greater detail. Later on in his career, he generally no longer used a piano when composing. He only played larger sections once they were written down.
Dvořák’s scores contain a large number of corrections and deletions, as well as parts that were erased and pasted over. “The pencil is a marvellous invention,” he said, “but the eraser is an even greater one! Sometimes, I erase so much that nothing, or very little is left on the paper. However, what remains is good.”