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62years 7months 23days
Length of life
170 +/– cm
1861-1903 (42 let)
Number of opuses written in total
Number of surviving completed opuses
Number of surviving completed individual works
3½ date (____cca____ 85 hours)
Total duration of all surviving works
Number of surviving items of correspondence written by Dvorak
Number of appearances as conductor
Dvořák the politician
Dvořák in space
Man’s first flight to the Moon took place on 20 July 1969. The Apollo 11 spacecraft landed in the Sea of Tranquility and remained on the Moon for 21 hours and 36 minutes. The two astronauts aboard were Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. According to the traditional interpretation, although never corroborated by the participants themselves, one of them played a recording of Dvorak’s New World Symphony as he stepped out onto the lunar surface. If this was indeed the case, the composer’s music symbolically accompanied humanity on its first important journey into the universe.
Excerpt from the memoirs of Dvořák's cousin Anna
For many years (until the year 1873, when he got married) Dvorak lived in Prague with his aunt Josefina Duskova on Karlovo namesti. His cousin Anna Duskova wrote about this period, stating:
“Antonin would take breakfast with us, he went to the Zpevacek pub near the National Theatre for lunch, and he went there for dinner as well. My mother did his washing for him. When the plum season came around he would ask if she would make him lunch, and I can still picture my mother counting out thirty plum dumplings for Antonin; there was never anything left on his plate. When we moved to a larger flat in the back part of the house, he had a piano in his room which he had on loan; there was a table opposite the piano, behind which was a bed. He often started composing as soon as he woke up. He would first tap out a musical idea on his quilt with his fingers. If he was writing at the table, he would hold the quill between his teeth and finger his coat as if he were playing the piano, or he would tap out the tune on his legs. Then he would turn to the piano, play something through and sing softly to himself as he did so. Often I would sneak into the room and listen. He would stare fixedly at me, whistle to himself softly, but he probably didn’t know I was even there!” [...] “He never had any affairs; the family used to say that he was afraid of women. He would sometimes say: Now there’s a pretty girl! But that’s where it ended.”
According to Dvorak’s contemporaries, the composer suffered from agoraphobia – he hated open spaces, town squares, busy streets and so on. Towards the end of his life this disorder became more acute, and his students sometimes had to accompany him on his way home from the Conservatoire.
One of the oft-cited facts about the composer’s private life is his love of trains, probably fostered in his early childhood when he witnessed the construction of the railway track passing through Nelahozeves. Perhaps behind this profound interest in what was then the ultimate in technological advancement lay his fascination for flawless complex machinery, itself reminiscent of the intricate structure of the symphonic work. This is clearly reflected in the familiar quotation: “I’d give all my symphonies if I could have invented the locomotive!” Dvorak’s interest in everything associated with the railways occasionally bordered on the obsessive. He would make detailed records of the express trains travelling from Prague to Vienna, and his customary early morning ritual entailed a walk above the tunnel through which trains would exit from Prague’s main station.
Before his trips abroad Dvorak would always study the timetables carefully, combining various connections so that journeys involving several changes would take up as little time as possible. At the stations he would chat to the engine drivers, thus keeping himself up-to-date with all the technical innovations. During his time in New York, his walks to the train station, which was too far away from where he was staying, were replaced by visits to the port, and it wasn’t long before he knew exactly which ship would be conveying his letters to his children in Europe.
Dvorak once asked his student at the Conservatoire and future son-in-law, Josef Suk, to get up early and go to the station to note down the number of the engine of the Vienna express train as it came out of the station tunnel. Suk hoped to make an impression on the maestro, so he set his alarm clock and, equipped with opera glasses, he set off in the morning, heading for the top of the tunnel. After the train had passed by, he ran to Dvorak’s flat in Zitna street to show him the number he had written down. But the composer only laughed at him: instead of the engine number, Suk – ignorant of such matters – had written down the number of the tender at the back of the train...
As far as we are aware, Antonin Dvorak presented himself at his local recruiting station on three occasions, in the years 1862, 1863 and 1864. The recruitment centre was located in Slany, under whose jurisdiction the composer’s birthplace Nelahozeves fell. For reasons unknown, however, Dvorak was never recruited.
During the holidays spent at his summer residence in Vysoka, Dvorak’s main hobby was keeping pigeons. He didn’t specialise in particular breeds, but instead endeavoured to keep various types in his pigeon loft. When he was in Prague or abroad, he maintained a lively correspondence with the Vysoka miner Jan Hodik, to whom he had entrusted the management of his house and garden; he would send him a list of instructions in order that the pigeons received the best care possible. The composer came by English pouter pigeons and wig pigeons in an unusual way. One of his concerts in England, where he was conducting his own works, was attended by members of the British royal family. During the interval one of the dignitaries asked Anna Dvorakova what her husband was most fond of, since the queen herself wished to know. Anna stated that he was extremely devoted to breeding pigeons. Shortly after arriving back home Dvorak received a royal consignment of two braces of English pouter pigeons and four braces of wig pigeons.
Excerpt from Dvorak’s letter to his friend Antonin Rus:
“Please be so kind as to ask Mrs Hovorkova about those pigeons. I do need them now. One male (modena) died during the night and I really need another one. If you don’t know much about pigeons, the modena usually has wings of a different colour from its body, with similar colours around its head and neck, but its main distinguishing feature is its tail, which goes up at the back like a hen’s. If I could have that brace of beautiful modena pigeons Mrs H promised me, I would be so grateful.”
Dvorak enjoyed smoking, and he often smoked, preferably a pipe. But his wife Anna would drive him out of the flat if he lit up his pipe, so he preferred to smoke cigarettes. The composer is known for an anecdotal remark he addressed to one of his students: “You don’t smoke? Then you’ll never be a composer. All composers have to smoke!”
Forged certificate of apprecticeship
For more than one hundred years after Dvorak’s death it was thought that the composer trained as a butcher during his youth. Earlier literature on Dvorak presents this fact and during the 1930s it was even supported by the apparent discovery of a certificate of apprenticeship which turned up in a private collection. The document was photographed and reproduced, but then it vanished just as mysteriously as it had appeared. Gradually, however, a series of circumstances came to light which led scholars to question the validity of the document: Dvorak’s name does not appear on the list of apprentices in Zlonice from that time; there is no mention of a master butcher Roubal – whose signature is entered on Dvorak’s certificate of apprenticeship – among the names of Zlonice tradesmen; the handwriting of the subsequent text is completely different etc. Today the misplaced document is regarded as an obvious forgery, probably made using a blank form already signed in advance by three masters of the Zlonice builders’ (not butchers’) guild.
Dvorak was in the habit of getting up very early (even around five in the morning) and, after his walk, he would continue with his composition work. Nevertheless, it often happened that inspiration would strike him in highly unusual environments wholly unsuitable for focused work. For instance, the main theme of the first movement of Symphony No. 7 came to him at the train station, when the ceremonial train came in from Budapest (see reproduction on the left, which reads: “This main theme occurred to me upon the arrival at the station of the ceremonial train from Pest in 1884.”). He wrote the eighth part of his Requiem (Lacrimosa) on a train bound for London in May 1890.
Various ideas for his famous American Quartet (No. 12 in F major) occurred to him while on walks down to Turkey River during his summer holiday in Spillville in 1893; whenever he came up with a motif, he would make a note of it on the cuff of his shirt sleeve. Towards the end of his time in the United States Dvorak would often visit the Saale docked in the Port of New York. Since he had already purchased boarding cards for the ship several months in advance, as was customary at that time he was allowed on board whenever the ship anchored in the harbour. At least, in this way, the composer felt somewhat closer to his homeland, which he greatly missed during the last stage of his sojourn in America. It was here that he also worked on his celebrated Cello Concerto in B minor. And the score of the orchestral version of Slavonic Dance No. 7 was written on 1 August 1878 at the top of mount Spicak during a summer excursion with friends in the Sumava mountains.
The Dvořák affair
The so-called “Dvorak Affair” was a shameful chapter in Czech music history, relating to events sparked during the 1910s by Zdenek Nejedly, who would later become one of the most powerful representatives of Communist totality. The roots of his philosophy could conceivably be sought in his native Litomysl (b. 1878), the birthplace of Bedrich Smetana, and it was from these two figures that he created icons of his progressive ideals during his youth. He soon identified with Jirasek’s notion of history: he glorified Hussitism and saw the height of the Czech Baroque as a period of darkness. Nejedly’s devotion to Smetana knew no bounds and often bordered on fanaticism when, for the sake of his Master, he sought to eliminate the latter’s “opponents” (not only Dvorak, but also Janacek, Suk and others). Crucially, in this regard, he did not render Smetana any great service; through Nejedly’s lens the founder of modern Czech music is to this day sometimes perceived as a sworn enemy of Dvorak. In line with the conception of music as defined during the course of the 19th century (namely the division arising between absolute and programme works), Nejedly placed Smetana, essentially a writer of programme music, on the pedestal of progress. He then forced Dvorak, proceeding from traditional music forms, into sharp contrast, condemning him to the position of a reactionary.
It is still a mystery why Nejedly chose Dvorak as the main target of his tirades. It is said that he was once firmly rejected as a suitor by Dvorak’s oldest daughter Otilie. No-one from the composer’s family knows anything about this, however, and Dvorak apparently never met Nejedly in person. What seems more likely is that Dvorak, in his greatness and importance, provided Nejedly with just the kind of adversary he needed to pursue his “struggle for Smetana”. Over the years he brought out a number of publications on music theory; regrettably, Nejedly the ideologist generally triumphed over Nejedly the musicologist. In 1910 he established the journal Smetana, surrounding himself in the process with a group of devoted advocates who worked as editors. These included the likes of eminent scientists and academics Otakar Zich, Josef Bartos and Vladimir Helfert. They criticised Dvorak – who could no longer defend himself – for what they claimed was his one-sidedness, insufficient musical memory, conservatism, lack of taste, eclecticism, and even for tawdry effects and bland melodies. They saw in his music a “grievous cultural danger” which “deformed the listener, goading him in the direction of musical primitivism”. The “artificially created Dvorak movement” would apparently become a “meaningless episode of the past”. According to Nejedly, Dvorak represented a “boulder which the young Czech musician must roll aside in order to continue on his way”. Not even works of such calibre as the New World Symphony escaped absurd criticism: “A work which, in its homophonic style, palled and faded; it was almost painful to hear. Moreover, there is no inkling of a symphonic construction, particularly in the first movement. The frivolities in the Scherzo and in the last movement are increasingly offensive as the work progresses. The only pleasing moment comes in the finale just before the end, when we hear the return of the trombone chords from the Largo. But this is somewhat insufficient for a symphony.” The constant diatribes voiced by the “Smetana camp” against Dvorak provoked a counterattack from the more judicious members of the cultural community. Adherents of Dvorak’s work published their own Protest in 1912 in which they took exception to the fanatical prejudice shown by Nejedly and his group. Among the signatories were Emanuel Chvala, Oskar Nedbal, Vitezslav Novak, Frantisek Ondricek, Josef Suk, Otakar Sevcik, Vaclav Talich, Hanus Wihan and others. Subsequent years witnessed constant scuffles between the two camps, culminating in a ludicrous dispute: “It’s either Smetana, or Dvorak”.
The situation changed in 1915. The public was not indifferent to what was going on and there was a general air of increasing opposition; Dvorak’s music continued to feature prominently on concert programmes. Nejedly the strategist realised it was time to back down somewhat, and he decided to turn his attention elsewhere, aiming his guns this time at Leos Janacek. But he didn’t get very far. Janacek, at the height of his career, succeeded in defending himself effectively against these absurd attacks. After the First World War Nejedly attempted to eliminate Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk as well, whom he accused of treason. The entire dispute was resolved by a court of honour and Suk was fully exonerated. During the inter-war period Nejedly’s former supporters gradually began to turn against him, although this did nothing to impede his “progressive” ideology in any way. He became one of the central representatives of the extreme left and cofounded numerous political groups (The Workers’ Academy – 1919, The Left Front – 1929 etc.). In 1939 Nejedly joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party and was a regular contributor to the majority of left-wing newspapers and periodicals.
His career peaked after the Second World War, when he was successively appointed Minister of Culture and Education (1945–1946), Minister of Labour and Social Welfare (1946–1948), and Minister of Culture and Education (1948–1953). From 1953 until his death (1962) he held the post of Minister without Portfolio. During this period he was one of the most active ideologists of Communist totality and the 1950s reign of terror. After the show trials he declared: “The ulcer has been cut out. Let us show that the body remains healthy. In this way we will best retaliate against the criminals, and the trials will represent for us what the Moscow Trials meant for the Soviet Union: a step towards great prosperity. [...] Let us move ever forwards in radiant spirits, cry the Czechoslovak people in wonderful voice, towards Gottwald and Stalin!”. Nejedly’s authority in cultural circles was practically unlimited during the 1950s. He managed to ensure, for example, that only one Dvorak work was presented by Czech performers at the Prague Spring of 1953 (moreover, outside the officially approved programme), and in 1950 he banned all repeat performances of Dvorak’s opera Dimitrij at the National Theatre for a full thirteen years (!) and so on. Despite his great efforts, however, he gradually lost his battle with Dvorak. He could only look on as the composer’s exceptional music came to be regarded as an international cultural legacy, in its unwavering distinction bringing joy to audiences worldwide. Zdenek Nejedly, a malevolent figure on the Czech cultural landscape, vanished after his death into the ash heap of history.