The only official music education Dvořák received – two years of study at the Institute for Church Music in Prague – merely provided him with basic skills in compositional techniques. Dvořák found it hard to come to terms with this disadvantage, and it took him quite some time to overcome it. Addressing this issue later, he noted: ‘When I had a new idea, I would write a few bars, but then I would be stuck. It took a lot of work for me to finally realise how to write a decently long movement!’ During the first stage of his music career, Dvořák had to make up for his lack of formal education by intensively examining the scores of master composers and by applying extraordinary diligence and willpower.
Dvořák’s themes are mostly regularly periodic, clearly arranged and have a distinct climax. They are often supported by countermelodies in the middle voices, which are composed more or less as independent, self-contained thematic units. Dvořák’s melodies are remarkably varied and typically highly cantabile in character. The effect they create is one of casualness and spontaneity.
Dvořák’s rhythms are very lively, multiform and diverse. Dotted and syncopated rhythms are typical for his music (these appeared in Dvořák’s works well before his American period). The middle voices and bass line are very often highly rhythmical, enlivening the entire flow of the music. In many of his musical pieces, Dvořák used irregular rhythmical figures typical for the furiant, a Czech folk dance.
Dvořák frequently introduced a polyphonic structure to the voices, both in his instrumental and vocal musical pieces. To achieve this, he applied a variety of technical devices, from the canon and all kinds of imitation, to the highest form of polyphony, the fugue.
The relatively frequent alternation of harmonic functions within short passages of music is typical of Dvořák’s works. This tendency particularly increased in the works he composed during the last stage of his career. During his Slavic period, the composer often favoured alternation between the same-note major and minor keys, and the so-called Moravian modulation, which is the shifting of the key to a lower second. Dvořák attempted his most daring modulation plans over more extensive passages during his ‘Wagnerian’ period, i.e. the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Dvořák’s art of instrumentation is generally regarded as one of the most powerful traits of his compositions. The composer achieved remarkable sound effects through the combination of individual instruments and their appropriate use in specific sections of music. During the last stage of his career, Dvořák developed this skill even further and it reached its peak in Erbenesque symphonic poems and his last three operas, in which he touched upon the principles of French Impressionism.
The principle of reminiscence was applied relatively frequently in 19th-century music, yet Dvořák made exceptional use of it in his works. It is featured not only in his operas in the form of leitmotifs, but also frequently in his instrumental musical pieces. In some cases, this is merely the main theme from the first movement, returning in the final movement to reinforce the cyclical nature of the piece. In other compositions, the principle of reminiscence is employed with much greater deliberation and, in so doing, it plays a major role in structuring the work.
Dvořák used the principle of contrast on various levels: with regard to harmony (frequently oscillation between major and minor keys), tempo and rhythm (highly contrasting passages in dumkas) and instrumentation (such as a tutti orchestra versus a chamber arrangement in the close of the Largo in Symphony No. 9). Dvořák had an exceptional sense of the contrast principle and was able to apply it to great effect.