The village of Vysoká u Příbramě is located approximately 50 kilometres south-west of Prague. It is a place which played a highly significant role in Dvořák’s private and professional life and can without exaggeration be described as his second home. From 1873 the Vysoká estate belonged to Count Václav Kounic, the composer’s brother-in-law (he married Dvořák’s wife Anna’s older sister Josefina in 1877). Kounic had part of the woods on the edge of the village adapted as a forest park, in the middle of which he had a small chateau built, designed by the Prague architect Čeněk Gregor. He presented the building as a wedding gift to his wife who subsequently lived there for the majority of her life. Dvořák was first invited to Vysoká by Kounic and his bride Josefina on their wedding day on 26 November 1877, and he was immediately enchanted by the beauty of the area. He received another invitation in 1880. During that summer and the four that followed the composer lived in a smaller house in the close vicinity of the chateau.
These first few visits to Vysoká occurred at a time when the composer was already internationally recognised and he was spending increasingly more time travelling in Europe. However much he enjoyed the attention of the public abroad, he always preferred the peace and quiet of home. After the hectic days and weeks on the road, along with the rehearsals and concerts, Vysoká provided him with everything he needed: contact with nature, a peaceful environment to work in, and a regular rhythm to his day. The proceeds from his first trip to England (1884), together with the higher fees he was able to command for his published works, enabled Dvořák to purchase from his brother-in-law his own plot of land with an old farm building which he had reconstructed into a house that would be suitable as a summer residence. He installed a study on the first floor containing an upright piano and a writing desk, whose windows afforded a view of nearby Třebsko (at that time Střebsko).
The composer turned his extensive grounds into a garden which, as he wrote in a letter to his publisher Simrock, he “nurtured with great care and loved as God’s divine work”. Apart from tending his garden at Vysoká, he also looked after his beloved pigeons. The composer entrusted Vysoká miner Jan Hodík with the management of his summer residence and there are a number of written documents in existence which indicate that, even at the height of his fame, “his” Vysoká was never far from his thoughts. In March 1893 – namely when he was working on his New World Symphony and teaching at New York’s National Conservatory – Dvorak wrote the following to Hodík: “I would be delighted if you would describe to me everything you have been doing there and how it is all going. Have you moved any shrubs and, if so, where have you put them? What about those young fruit trees, wouldn’t it be better to prune any superfluous branches so that the trees are better able to grow?”
Dvořák usually left for Vysoká in May, not returning to his Prague flat until September or October. With the exception of the summer of 1893, when he stayed in the small American town of Spillville, he spent every single summer there. Dvořák established a regular rhythm to his day in Vysoká: he got up very early, around four or five in the morning, and went for a walk in the countryside. He generally got as far as Třebsko, a village situated not far from Vysoká, where he attended morning Mass and played his favourite Marian songs on the organ. Dvořák liked the little Třebsko church so much that he purchased a new organ for it in 1894. It was consecrated on the day of Dvořák’s 53rd birthday (8 September 1894) and an entry in the village’s commemorative book states that “the famous musician Maestro Dr. Antonín Dvořák donated a new organ for our venerable church in Třebsko, which was consecrated and inaugurated on the 8th of September.” Below this entry Dvořák had added a note in his own hand: “And I played on the organ.” (Regrettably, a fire broke out in the church in 1953 and the instrument was destroyed.)
After his early morning walk Dvořák would shut himself away in his study and spend the rest of the morning composing. After lunch he would set off for the woods once more and, according to the recollections of his son Otakar, who often accompanied him, even here he was contemplating the work he had done that morning: “He was silent the whole way and so preoccupied with his musical ideas that, for much of the time, he wouldn’t answer my questions. He would often tap out some melody on his chest with his right hand.” After his walk he would sit back down in front of his manuscript paper, tend his garden or the pigeons, or go up to the chateau to visit the Kounic family. Towards evening he would often make his way to the inn known as “U Fenclů”, where he would play cards with the local miners and, particularly after his return from America, there would be many locals there avid to hear about his experiences abroad. He would go home at about half past eight and usually went to bed around nine.
A huge number of works were written while Dvořák stayed in Vysoká, of which many are among the most important of his entire oeuvre. Here, Dvořák began, completed or wrote in full at least thirty major compositions. The first to immediately come to mind is Rusalka, which will always be associated with the natural surroundings of this region. There is even a small lake behind the chateau, where Dvořák was supposed to have gone for walks and sought inspiration for the music for his most famous opera. After Dvořák’s death, the lake was given the name “Rusalka’s Lake”, and the composer’s summer residence received the designation “Villa Rusalka”. Dvořák’s summer house in Vysoka is owned by the composer’s heirs to this day and is normally closed to the public. The Kounic family chateau on the other side of the village, which was completely reconstructed during the 1990s, now houses the Antonín Dvořák Memorial which offers a permanent exhibition on the composer’s life and work, a room where visitors can listen to recordings of his music, also short-term exhibitions, concerts and other events.