Dvorak’s birthplace Nelahozeves (originally Nelahodova ves) is situated approximately 20 kilometres north-west of Prague. The first written records concerning Nelahozeves date from the year 1352, but the site is said to have been occupied from as early as the beginning of the 10th century. During the 14th century the local church of St Andrew became a parish church, and from the 16th century Nelahozeves was in the possession of Florian Griespech of Griespach, who had a Renaissance castle built on the hill above the Vltava river. In 1623 Nelahozeves became the property of the Lobkowicz family, who own the castle to this day. The river was extremely important for the community in previous centuries as a major transportation thoroughfare and as a valuable source of fishing, which supplemented the largely agricultural livelihoods of the people living in its vicinity. When Dvorak was born Nelahozeves had 46 buildings and 438 inhabitants.
Dvorak was born on 8 September 1841 in a two-storey house, no. 12, situated right opposite the church. This was where the composer’s father, Frantisek Dvorak, carried out his trade as a butcher and innkeeper, and the family also lived in the house. Inebriated customers were to blame for a fire which broke out during the night of 5 and 6 July 1842, and tradition has it that Frantisek carried 10-month-old Antonin out of the burning house in his cradle. The house was reconstructed after the fire, while the layout of the ground floor, which incorporated the taproom and three other rooms, apparently remained as before. The building is owned by the Lobkowicz family who rent it out to the National Museum for a symbolic amount. It houses a permanent exhibition open to the public focusing on the composer’s childhood and adolescence. Later on the Dvoraks also lived – probably for a similar length of time or for somewhat longer – in house no. 24, which was subsequently demolished.
Dvorak’s first encounter with music occurred in Nelahozeves – at home with the family (his father was a fan of the zither), at village dances held in the Dvorak family tavern, and also during Mass, at which the local school teacher Josef Spitz played the organ. Spitz also began to teach young Dvorak to play the violin, thus Antonin was soon performing in front of guests in the taproom, later even in the church organ loft. According to the memoirs of Dvorak’s friend Vaclav Juda Novotny, the composer thus described his first solo appearance in the church serving the nearby village of Veprek:
“I was trembling all over, I was so full of dread as I tuned my little violin, and my bow was juddering on the strings as I played my first few notes! But then I gathered all the strength I had in me and said to myself: ‘Come on, my boy, hang on in there, this isn’t the place or the time to get scared.’ And it turned out well. As soon as I had finished, I could hear the hum of voices, people talking animatedly all the way down the gallery, people pushed towards me from all sides, friends smiled blissfully at me and clapped me good-naturedly on the shoulder, and I even received a whole groschen from my neighbour in the first violins.”
Antonin probably started school in the autumn of 1847. No documentation relating to Dvorak’s school attendance or his grades exists, since all documents from the period were destroyed by a fire at the Nelahozeves school in 1885. We know only that, upon leaving school, Dvorak was given a prayer book entitled The Pious Christian as a reward for his diligence and good conduct.
In addition to his schooling, Dvorak was also obliged to help out in the family business and thus prepare himself for a future in the butcher’s trade. To this end he also travelled round the local markets, an experience he later remembered with the following words:
“Chvateruby, Lobec, Lobecek, Hledseby, Vsestudy and Mlcechvosty – I went to these places with my father to buy all kinds of wonderful livestock. Whenever he gave me an animal to look after, it would either charge off without me or drag me into a lake without much ado; it wasn’t an enviable situation to be in. But all the woes of my childhood were soothed by music, my guardian angel.”
One of the most important events to occur during Dvorak’s childhood in Nelahozeves was the construction of the railway, which began in 1845 and was completed in 1851, when the composer had reached the age of ten. The railway line, which had been laid down literally a few dozen metres from the Dvorak family home, was opened on 8 April 1851, when the first ceremonial train passed through Nelahozeves. Having observed the construction of the railway and the passage of the first trains, and having witnessed the technological miracles occurring at the time, Dvorak would probably have been left with profound impressions which accompanied him his whole life – his interest in trains and anything connected with modern transport was one of the characteristic traits of his personality.
Shortly after finishing school, young Antonin was sent by his father to Zlonice to stay with his uncle, and his period spent in Nelahozeves came to an end. We know he returned to his birthplace for visits at least several times, also during the 1860s, when he visited his parents, and then in April 1889, when he took part in a concert at the castle featuring a programme of his works. In 1901, to mark the composer’s 60th birthday, the village of Nelahozeves named Dvorak its honorary citizen.
Several days after Dvořák's visit to his birthplace in 1889 the Czech music journal Dalibor published a report from a Nelahozeves correspondent (here in abbreviated form):
The first morning train brought us the famous Dvořák, accompanied by photographer Mulač and by Velebín and Mojmír Urbánek. As soon as our master deboarded the train he headed directly for our little church, from which the noble sounds of singing and the organ could be heard. Clearly moved, master Dvořák looked down from the choir loft on the pleasant sanctuary and followed with pleasure the singing of the boys and girls, mixing with the voices of the people who filled the church. Surely he recalled how thirty years ago he had sung on this choir loft, or played violin and organ, or pulled the bellows. From the church our guest made his way to the house where he had been born, and to his considerable joy found almost everything as it was thirty years ago. With great interest he asked the present occupants of the building about all his acquaintances from the time of his youth, whereupon he set out on a walk around our village. Our master found many of his old friends still living, but he also learned that many now reside in our nearby, beautifully situated cemetery. Master Dvořák invited three of his former fellow students to join him and spoke with them for a long time about those bygone days; various recollections of past times, pleasant and unpleasant, were called to mind.
For the afternoon a splendid welcome had been prepared for master Dvořák in the local prince's castle, which houses a girls' school run by the honourable sisters of the order of Christian love. Master Dvořák arrived in the castle shortly after 2 o'clock with his wife (who had come by the noon train), with the Urbáneks and their wives, and with his guides, and was cordially welcomed by the honourable lady in charge of the school. Then began a concert by students in which most of them displayed advanced technique and uncommonly mature expression. This phalanx of female concert artists glowing with youth and bursting with good health made a charming sight, as they followed each other at the piano with genteel bows: it was a real joy to listen to these youthfully fresh and spring-like voices when they sang 'Where is My Land?', and on many a face and in many an eye during the singing of the national anthem 'Where is My Home?' you could clearly read that the words born by their lips found a bright response in their young hearts. Our national anthem closed with a mighty chord, and these fresh voices thrilled master Dvořák: the enthusiasm of the youthful singers passed to him so fully that he sat down at the piano and, having requested a repetition of the first verse of our anthem, accompanied the singing himself. The impression made by this moment was ravishing: nobody who was present will ever forget it. Hardly had the singing stopped when an acclamation for master Dvořák sounded forth, and a whole swarm of tender little hands rose up begging the master to play one of his compositions. The master did not resist, and so we heard the first improvisation on motives from The Jacobin: on the scene in front of the church, the noble song of the count, Jiří's 'Do you know this man?': master Dvořák conjured up a whole series of gorgeous pearls and precious gems before the enthralled listeners. The applause and shouts became more and more intense. Again and again the master had to go to the beautiful Bösendorfer until the dusk outside became noticeable and the sound of the evening bell reminded us it was getting late.
translation: David R. Beveridge