Death and funeral

Antonín Dvořák died on Sunday, 1 May 1904, shortly after midday in his Prague flat in Žitná street, surrounded by his close family. News of his death soon reached his closest friends and relatives, thus, by the afternoon, various people had arrived at the flat to pay their respects: director of the National Theatre František Adolf Šubert, soprano Růžena Maturová, music critic Václav Juda Novotný, the composer’s brother-in-law Václav Kounic, music publisher Mojmir Urbánek, and director of the Prague Conservatoire Karel Knittl, among others. Sculptor Josef Mařatka, who lived in the same house as the Dvořáks, took the composer’s death mask and created a cast of his right hand. Black banners were already hanging from the facade of the National Theatre before the evening performance.

The next morning, 2 May, the daily press published mourning issues with the news of Dvořák’s death on their front pages, and a number of newspapers wrote lengthy obituaries over several days, looking back at the composer’s musical legacy. Reports also appeared outside the country, in German, Austrian, English and American newspapers. In the following days Dvořák’s family received a huge number of letters of condolence from all over the world: from friends, performers, political and cultural institutions, music publishers, universities etc. In the evening, Dvořák’s body was taken to the Pathology Institute at Charles University where it was preserved by professor Jaroslav Hlava. After its preservation the body was returned to the family. That same day mourning assemblies were held by the two institutions whose activities were closely associated with Dvořák’s name: The Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts and the music division of the artists’ association Umělecká beseda.

On 3 May a meeting was convened at the Old Town Hall involving representatives of several bodies which had undertaken the role of organising Dvořák’s funeral: The Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts represented by Josef Hlávka, the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University represented by Jaroslav Vrchlický, Prague City Council, the artists’ association Umělecká beseda, the National Theatre Association, the Prague Conservatoire, and the composer’s family, represented by Josef Sobotka. 

On 4 May Josef Suk returned to Prague having received a telegram during his tour of Spain with the Czech Quartet. On the way back he stopped off in Dvořák’s native village Nelahozeves, from where he brought a bouquet of lilacs to place on the composer’s coffin. 

On the morning of 5 May the coffin was transferred from the Dvořáks’ flat to the church of the Holy Saviour within the grounds of the Clementinum, where it was placed on public view for several hours until the start of the funeral procession. A single wreath was placed in front of the catafalque which bore the inscription: “To a beloved, cherished husband and loving dad.” The church, the adjacent Křížovnické náměstí (square) and the courtyard of the Clementinum filled with thousands of people who had come to bid farewell to the Maestro. These included representatives of Czech cultural and academic circles, music associations in Prague and beyond, also members of Austria’s Upper House, among others. After two funeral laments sung by the Prague-based Hlahol choral society, a funeral procession began to form which, after three in the afternoon, set off on its way to Vyšehrad cemetery, the last resting place for many famous Czechs.

The procession was headed by members of the Sokol movement, then a group of students in historical costume, a large number of university students and also staff and pupils from the Prague Conservatoire. The second part of the procession comprised representatives of the artists’ association Umělecká beseda, members of the National Theatre Opera, various delegations from outside Prague attending on behalf of music and choral associations, and also members of a variety of trades and businesses, amateur and charitable societies and fraternities. In the main part of the procession, singing “miserere” as they walked along, were members of Prague’s Hlahol and the Association of Choral Ensembles, followed by university students who held up banners inscribed with the titles of Dvořák’s works. Another group was formed by Sokol representatives carrying a large number of funeral wreaths and bouquets of flowers sent by individuals, organisations and music companies (including Simrock publishers, the Musicians’ Association in Vienna, the Philharmonic Society in Hamburg, František Ondříček, Jan Kubelík and others). These were followed by girls dressed in white robes and carrying palm fronds, representing the nine Muses, and a group of priests. Behind them rode a gold funeral carriage bearing the coffin drawn by six horses, with Dvořák’s family behind it, then close friends, the rector of the Czech university and the deans of all four faculties. A large number of other mourners walked at the rear of the procession. 

The route led along Františkovo (today Smetanovo) nábřeží (embankment) to the National Theatre, where the procession came to a halt for a moment and from the theatre’s balcony came the sound of a fragment of Dvořák’s Requiem, performed by the theatre orchestra and choir. The procession then continued along Ferdinandova (today Národní) třída and Jungmannova street, past the upper part of Karlovo náměstí (square), to the church of St Ignatius, then down to the Czech Technical University, past the lower end of the square, to Vyšehradska street, and on to Vyšehrad itself, on whose city walls funeral torches were burning. At the cemetery the coffin was first placed on the altar of the Slavin tomb. A choir sang a funeral lament and director of the Conservatoire Karel Knittl gave a memorial address. The coffin was then placed in a temporary grave (Dvořák’s remains were transferred to the family tomb two years later, on the anniversary of the composer’s death). 

Dvořák’s funeral on 5 May 1904 was an exceptional event for Prague at that time. Its meticulous organisation, shared not only by the composer’s family, but also by a series of cultural and public institutions, well illustrates the respect and popularity Dvorak had commanded both as a musician and as an individual. The grandeur of the funeral ceremonies bears comparison with the country’s most important state funerals, and the thousands of people who witnessed the occasion provide proof of the universal recognition of the significance of Dvořák’s work for Czech and world culture. At a time of heightened national dissent, participation in Dvořák’s funeral was also tantamount to a manifesto, a patriotic gesture which extended far beyond the borders of the “mere” music world. The funeral ceremonies were then followed by a funeral Mass held on 7 May in the Týn church, during which the National Theatre soloists, orchestra and choir performed Mozart’s Requiem.

period press reports 

“Our nation has received a terrible, terrible blow – Antonín Dvořák is no more. Yesterday, at half past twelve in the afternoon, he died from sudden heart failure, having been confined to his bed for a whole month. Irreplaceable is the loss we now suffer with so premature a demise and, in these first few moments of anguish, we cannot even imagine its impact. With his passing, Czech music has lost everything which helped it conquer its position abroad over the last thirty years, and the gold throne from which the maestro dominated a world enthralled by the magic of his genius, will remain abandoned – vacant. We are now deprived of a man who elevated the Czech name to unattainable heights, and we have now lost the most magnificent of his kind, without any hope that someone will take his place. For our small nation, Dvořák’s death is of tragic significance, since we have been robbed of our greatest genius in whom we took great pride before the world, and who could have still given us many beautiful and rare flowers. The tragedy of what has come to pass is felt all the more keenly, given that he departed in full vigour. [...] Czech music, the most valuable asset that the Czech nation has created in the cultural sphere, its hitherto most effective representation beyond its borders, has suffered a mortal blow with Dvořák’s death since, on this day, its glorious era has ended, and Czech music has begun to live in the past. The late maestro was one of the greatest geniuses the Czech nation has ever produced, and our modern generation does not have, in music or in any other of its domains, anyone who could evince a mere spark of his versatility, and who could intimate to us that secret hopes might one day grow into a mighty tree bearing the vigour and grandiosity denied us through Dvořák’s death.”

Neue Freie Presse:
“Dvořák’s chief significance lies in the fact that the Czech national musical dialect has now united with universal world discourse. To a much greater degree than in the case of Smetana: it could even be said that Smetana has only now taken his place on Dvořák’s triumphal chariot as he now embarks upon his journey across the world. It was Dvořák who, through his instrumental music, encouraged confidence in the purity of the ducats for which Smetana’s “Bride” was bartered, and who prompted greater willingness on the part of foreigners to follow his older companion Smetana to the banks of his “Vltava”, having been thoroughly enticed by the delightful “Dances” and songs by the younger Dvořák.”

Lidové noviny:
“One of the greatest is no longer with us. He has passed away but his memory will be immortal, since it will continue to live on in his works. He leaves his soul there for us; a simple, good-natured soul, without pretence or affectation. He sang to us of its joy, its sorrow, longing, disillusionment and triumph. Naturally, spontaneously, as birds sing when nature is in full flower, fragrant and joyful. In his works he opened up his heart to us, his profound love and goodness.”

Neues Wiener Tagblatt:
“Not only Prague and Vienna, but also the Maestro’s true homeland which he placed in the hearts of mankind, namely the entire music world, deeply mourn the sudden passing of Antonín Dvořák. The loss suffered by all realms of music in France and England, Switzerland and America will be irretrievable, as it is in Austria and Bohemia. We all know what Dvořák meant to us as a musician. We recognise, venerate and love him for the wonderful works he created in so many music disciplines.”

Národní politika:
“We have been deprived forever of a man who was the first of the foremost who, having excelled even during Smetana’s lifetime as his dignified contemporary, gave Czech culture bountiful gifts of incomparable worth, a man whose majestic works captured the imagination of the whole world and ensured perpetual greatness for Czech music.”

Musikalisches Wochenblatt:
“With the passing of Antonín Dvořák, Bohemia has lost its greatest composer, and the entire cultural spectrum is now deprived of a musician whom, where musical talent is concerned, no living composer can rival. It is strange to think that this fact was not expressed more frequently. Dvořák gave out everything he received or could receive from his nation: the true, pure language of tones.”

Frankfurter Zeitung:
“Alongside Brahms, Dvořák was the most eminent representative of the so-called conservative movement. Yet, despite his great affinity with Brahms, he maintained his own stylistic independence. In his works he placed chief emphasis on the melodic element. Dvořák’s works will proclaim his glory far beyond the memory of his contemporaries, and his name will assume an honorary place in the history of music.”

Pester Lloyd:
“A series of wonderful works carried Antonín Dvořák’s name far beyond the confines of his small country. As a composer of opera – partly due to his nationality – he was reliant almost exclusively upon the Czech stage. [...] In all other disciplines, however, Dvořák was a triumphant master. Practically all his works are familiar to Budapest concert audiences and now enjoy considerable popularity.”

Vossische Zeitung:
“The death of Antonín Dvořák caught us completely unawares. His friends and admirers still anticipated much from him, all the more so since they had noted that, in the last period of his composition work, his originality had continued to strengthen and flourish. But then these hopes were dashed.” 

Leoš Janáček:

“The Warsaw Philharmonic has changed the programme of its symphonic concert. It will include the “Hussite” overture as a mark of respect for the great Czech composer Dr Antonín Dvořák, whose death has just been announced to its members. I stand unsteadily with the others in the crowded hall. Is it really true that he has died?”

Edvard Grieg:

“I received a letter from Prague, the paper framed in black: Antonín Dvořák is dead. The brilliant Czech composer, whose name is known to the whole world, is no longer with us. We have thus lost one of the few contemporary original and national composers [...] I loved Dvořák as an artist and as a musician and, last year, I was fortunate to have come to know him as a true and good person.