As is the case today, during Dvořák’s lifetime Prague was the social and cultural centre of the Czech lands. Its rich cultural past had always attracted domestic and foreign artists working in various fields. Musicians who came to the capital included – if we exclude famous Czech names – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Fryderyk Chopin, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg and many more. When Dvořák’s father František decided to encourage his son’s exceptional talent by sending him away to study music, the natural choice was Prague; there was evidently no question of sending him anywhere else. It is very difficult to ascertain with greater accuracy the date Dvořák moved from Zlonice to Prague; sources are vague and sometimes even contradict each other. In any case, the move occurred sometime in the autumn of 1857, probably in September, thus not long after Dvořák’s 16th birthday.
Even though Prague was very different back then, and the atmosphere of the city was much more provincial than it is today, it would have meant a fundamental change for Dvořák. The city’s musical environment – which would have interested him the most – was incomparable with what he had been accustomed to up until this time. He would have been able to attend concerts organised by the Conservatoire, the Musicians’ Association, the Cecilian Association, the Bennewitz Quartet, and also appearances by foreign artists who were recognised as world-class performers in their day: Hans von Bulow, Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt and others. In addition, German operas were staged in the Estates Theatre and, from 1859, also Czech productions in the New Town Theatre. Dvořák soon began to take an active role in Prague’s music circles: he joined the Cecilian Association Orchestra and, during his studies at organ school, he took part in numerous concerts as a viola player.
The list of Prague music institutions associated with Dvořák begins with the so-called organ school (officially the Institute for Church Music), which was what brought him to Prague in the first place. The school had an excellent reputation, it boasted a series of renowned teachers and represented serious competition for the Prague Conservatoire. Unlike the latter, however, it focused on the instruction of future organists. The school was located in building no. 238/1 in the passageway between Konviktská and Bartolomějská streets (the courtyard with its characteristic galleries has survived to this day) and it only had three rooms and one organ. The atmosphere of the place where Dvořák spent two years studying was well documented by the composer himself later on: “At the organ school everything smelt mouldy. Even the organ!”
Nevertheless, the building’s location was a great advantage for Dvořák: it was situated not far from his first Prague address in Dominikánská (today Husova) street, no. 238. He was living with his cousin Marie Plivová and her husband, who earned a living as a tailor. The house still stands today and its facade looks much the same as it did in Dvořák’s day. His father’s financial situation was deteriorating with each passing year, which was probably one of the main reasons nineteen years old Antonín went to stay with his aunt Josefa Dušková on Karlovo náměstí [Charles Square] in 1860, in house no. 558, known as Na křemenci (or Na křemelci). The rent was probably lower and Dvořák would have been able to “work off” the amount by teaching the Dušeks’ daughter Anna who was about to start school. A major part of the composer’s life is associated with the house Na křemenci and with Karlovo náměstí itself.
Dvořák lived with the Dušeks – apart from a period of about two years – from 1860 to 1873, when he got married, and it was here that he wrote a series of important works, such as the Hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain” and Symphony No. 3 in E flat major. The composer was very fond of the park on Karlovo náměstí and, for the rest of his life, he would come here on his morning walks to listen to the birdsong. On many occasions Dvořák would also attend the early morning services at the church of St Ignatius on the corner of Ječná street and Karlovo náměstí.
The year 1862 represented a turning point in Dvořák’s life: the Komzák Ensemble, in which he played the viola, was engaged as the core of the orchestra affiliated to the newly opened Provisional Theatre. Its building was situated on the same plot of land on which the National Theatre was later constructed. Remnants of the Provisional Theatre are visible on this site to this day – the building was incorporated into the structure of the National Theatre and forms its central part. Dvořák spent nine years playing in the opera orchestra, a period which had a fundamental influence on his compositional work, since he was given the opportunity to familiarise himself well with a broad spectrum of compositions from past and present, and not only operatic works; the orchestra commonly gave concert performances as well.
At the end of 1863 the Dušeks, with whom Dvořák was staying, decided to move from Karlovo náměsti to nearby Václavská street (no. 327), however, Dvořák did not live in their new flat for very long, probably only for a few months. He increasingly felt the need to have access to a piano which, for the time being, he couldn’t afford to purchase or hire. Sometime during the course of 1864 he thus accepted an offer from his friend Mořic Anger, a colleague from the theatre orchestra, to take up residence with him on Senovážné náměstí no. 1375 (now 19).
Anger owned a piano, perhaps only an old spinet which had seen better days, as suggested by Anger’s describing it as a “Jew’s harp”. But it was evidently enough for Dvořák’s needs. While he was living on Senovážné náměstí he turned out his first two symphonies and the song cycle Cypresses. All the same, living in the merry company of Anger and several other young men in a single room was not ideal for focused work. Boleslav Kalenský, whom Dvořkk befriended later on, described this episode in the composer’s life, stating: “M. Anger was not here on his own. Living with him was a young medical student, Karel Čech, later operatic soloist and brother of Adolf Čech, who was at that time first bandmaster affiliated to the municipal theatre in Olomouc, later conductor at the National Theatre. Apart from him there were also two grammar school students in the flat, and a Prague tourist guide called Anděl [“Angel”]. The latter would come home very late, often in high spirits thanks to the drink inside him, and get undressed in a very noisy fashion, waking up the other four. There were altercations on a daily basis because of this, after which all the roommates would send Anděl to hell, calling him, more appropriately, a devil.”
After about a year Dvořák was glad to be able to move back to the much more peaceful environment of the Dušek family home. In the meantime the Dušeks had left their flat in Václavská street and had returned to their original address on Karlovo náměstí, no. 558, but they were now occupying a different flat in the same building. Here Dvořák lived without interruption for the next eight years. Anna, the daughter of Dvořák’s aunt Josefa Dušková, wrote many years later about what she remembered from this period, and we learn from her memoirs that, by this time, Dvořák had a hired piano at his disposal. “He often started composing as soon as he woke up – while he was still in bed – and if a thought came into his head, he would tap out the melody 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. A moment later he would turn to the piano, play something through and sing softly to himself as he did so. When he played in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, he’d take me with him to a performance. [...] More often than not I would sneak into the room, go up to the piano, clasp my hands together and plead with him, sometimes for a full fifteen minutes: Anton, please take me with you today! He would stare fixedly at me, smile, whistle to himself – but he was far away and probably didn’t know I was even there! When he came back down to earth from wherever he was up there, he’d bark at me: What d’you want? And I’d jump back in surprise.” House no. 558 on Karlovo namesti (Charles Square) has survived to this day, but it looked quite different in Dvořák’s day, when he was living there.
Dvořák married Anna Čermáková in November 1873 in the church of St Peter and, for a short time, he moved into the flat occupied by Anna, her siblings and her mother, the recently widowed Klotilda Čermáková, at 1413/27 Na Florenci street. (The house was later pulled down and today another stands in its place, now no. 33.) It wasn’t long before the newlyweds managed to find their own flat on Na Rybníčku street, no. 1364/14, and they moved in at the beginning of 1874. (This house was also pulled down later on and was replaced by another, today no. 12.)
Another location closely associated with Dvořák during this period is the church of St Adalbert, where the composer held the post of organist during the years 1874–1877. Young Josef Bohuslav Foerster, who sang in the church choir at that time, later stated in his memoirs: “When [Dvořák] turned up, he didn’t take any notice of anyone, he didn’t greet anyone, and immediately went to sit at the organ. The console of the old instrument was positioned to the side, the organist had to follow the conductor’s baton through a mirror placed above the keyboard, and so he sat at the organ with his back to the choir, the conductor and all the other performers. Thus it was only rarely that I saw Dvořák’s face, but I remember that, back then, when I was a child, this stern-looking man, always earnest and occupied with strange thoughts, put the wind up me.” The church of St Adalbert is situated between Vojtešská, Šítkova and Pštrossova streets, near Masarykovo nábřeží. Originally a Gothic building, it was renovated in the Baroque style and, during Dvořák’s time there, some of its Gothic elements were returned to it. It has survived to this day in very good condition.
But now let’s return to Na Rybníčku street. Dvořák and his wife spent nearly four years there, an extremely prolific period in the context of the composer’s oeuvre overall. Here, Dvořák wrote three operas, his Piano Concerto in G minor, the Moravian Duets, a large number of chamber pieces, and also one of his most celebrated works, the Stabat mater. On a personal level, however, the years spent at Na Rybníčku were probably the most tragic of the composer’s life: Dvořák’s first three children were successively born here and also died here.
In the autumn of 1877 Dvořák moved again, this time to a permanent address. He chose house no. 10 (today 14) in nearby Žitná street. He probably made this choice since none of the other tenants owned a piano, which had disturbed him in his work at his previous accommodation. Dvořák spent more than 26 years of his life at 10 Žitná street until his death in May 1904 and a large portion of his compositional legacy was written here. He did move three more times within the same building, each time into a larger flat, as the number of children, and his income, increased. For the last 20 years or so the Dvořáks lived on the second floor, in the right wing of the building.
There were several Prague music institutions associated with Dvořák’s work, of which we should mention some of the theatres. We have already referred to the Provisional Theatre in connection with the composer’s engagement with the orchestra. Later on, this theatre hosted the premieres of three of Dvořák’s operas (the second musical setting of King and Collier, Vanda and The Cunning Peasant). The theatre also had a summer venue, known as the New Czech Theatre, sometimes also simply called the “Arena”. This wooden building was situated on the corner of what is now Anglická and Škrétova streets, and performances here were only possible during the summer and autumn months, depending on the weather. Two of Dvořák’s operas had their premiere here (The Stubborn Lovers and Dimitrij), and also two orchestral works: Czech Suite and Scherzo capriccioso. All the composer’s other operas (The Jacobin, The Devil and Kate, Rusalka and Armida) were performed in the newly opened National Theatre.
In Dvorak’s young days, the majority of orchestral concerts were held in Žofín palace on Slovanský ostrov [Slav Island] or at the Provisional Theatre; chamber concerts which didn’t require as much space were held in venues such as the Konvikt building, which we mentioned in connection with the organ school. The Rudolfinum only opened in 1885, and Municipal House was completed eight years after Dvořák’s death. Numerous concerts featuring new works by Dvořák, sometimes conducted by the composer himself, were held at Žofín. Arguably the most important of them was Dvořák’s first independent concert on 17 November 1878, at which he introduced himself to the public not only as a composer, but also as a conductor. A number of his works were premiered here over the years (Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 8, the first and second Slavonic Rhapsodies, the Serenades in E major and D minor, Prague Waltzes, the Polka “For Prague Students”, Symphonic Variations).
Several of Dvořák’s opuses were premiered in the New Town Theatre which, in the years 1859–1886, used to stand roughly on the site of today’s State Opera. After the opening of the Neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum on what is now Jan Palach Square (náměstí Jana Palacha), Prague concert life was focused there instead and, after the institution of the Czech Philharmonic in 1894 (inauguration in 1896), the significance of the building increased severalfold. The main concert hall, today the Dvořák Hall, is famous for its excellent acoustics, but evidently this wasn’t always the case. Dvořák himself initially refused to conduct in the Rudolfinum: “As far as a concert in the Rudolfinum is concerned, I must tell you that you’ll never get me in that cavern to conduct my works, and especially not The Spectre’s Bride. Anywhere else, but not there! I’m telling you, consider it carefully! Or are the acoustics better than they were before? I haven’t been to any concert there recently, so I can’t say whether they have made any improvements on that score.” In time, the building really did see major improvements, a fact reflected in Dvořák’s several appearances as conductor in the Rudolfinum, including the Czech Philharmonic’s inaugural concert on 4 January 1896.
From 1891 onwards Dvořák’s name was also associated with the most important music school in Prague, the Conservatoire. During the first ten years (with the exception of his time in the United States) he taught composition here and, in 1901, he was elected its artistic director. His pupils included major future composers, such as Josef Suk, Vítězslav Novák, Oskar Nedbal and many others. Shortly before Dvořák began teaching here the Conservatoire was institutionally linked with the organ school, where Dvořák also gave tuition in composition. The composer thus returned to the very locations where he had begun in Prague, now enjoying a very different status.
Many places in Prague featured prominently in Dvořák’s private life. During his regular early morning walks he not only visited the church and park on Karlovo náměstí, but he also walked to Emperor Franz Joseph Station (now the main station), where he would observe the arrival and departure of the trains, chat with the station staff and gain an insight into contemporary trends in rail transport.
Dvořák had several favourite coffee-houses where he liked to go to read newspapers and smoke the cigars his wife Anna preferred him not to smoke at home. Just opposite his flat in Žitná street was the Paris cafe, which he visited almost daily from the time he moved here. He was also seen frequenting the cafe U Karla IV [Charles IV] on the corner of Žitná street and Karlovo náměstí, and back in the 1860s he began meeting up with his friend Karel Bendl at the Viennese cafe on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Na Příkopě street (Koruna Palace stands on this site today), a favourite haunt of musicians, especially Bedřich Smetana. We know that, at least from the year 1890 onwards, Dvořák would frequent the restaurant known as U Mahulíků in Myslíkova street, where the so-called Mahulík table society was founded, of which Dvořák was appointed patron on 1 June 1894 after his first return from the United States.
While, in general, Dvořák was not one for socialising on a regular basis, he was a frequent guest at the Friday soirees hosted in his flat by architect and patron Josef Hlávka at 736 Jungmannova street. These parties attracted the cultural elite of Prague at that time: Julius Zeyer, Jaroslav Vrchlický, Josef Vaclav Myslbek, Josef Suk, the members of the Czech Quartet, and also Frantisek Ladislav Rieger. At these soirees Dvorak would play four-hand piano pieces with Zdenka Hlávková.
Just as Prague had witnessed Dvořák’s international successes, his conducting appearances and celebrations of important landmarks in his life, the city also played its role upon his death. Antonín Dvořák died on 1 May 1904 in his flat on Žitná street and, a few days later, thousands of people paid their respects by taking part in a funeral procession in the streets of Prague. Dvořák is also buried in Prague, and his body lies in a tomb in Vyšehrad cemetery, the traditional resting place of noteworthy figures.
Dvořák’s Prague addresses
|1.||autumn 1857–1860||238 Dominikánská (today Husova) street|
|2.||1860 – end 1863||558 Karlovo náměstí [Charles Square] (house known as Na křemenci)|
|3.||end 1863 – 1864||327 Václavská street|
|4.||1864 – end 1865||1375 Senovážné náměstí (today 19)|
|5.||end 1865 – November 1873||558 Karlovo náměstí (house known as Na křemenci)|
|6.||November 1873 – beg. 1874||1413/27 Na Florenci street|
|7.||beg. 1874 – autumn 1877||1364/14 Na Rybníčku street|
|8.||autumn 1877 – 1904||564/10 Žitná street (today 14; Dvořák moved three times to different flats in the same house)|