The village of Vysoka near Pribram is located approximately 50 kilometres south-west of Prague. It is a place which played a highly significant role in Dvorak’s private and professional life and can without exaggeration be described as his second home. From 1873 the Vysoka estate belonged to Count Vaclav Kounic, the composer’s brother-in-law (he married Dvorak’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 architect Cenek Gregor. He presented the building as a wedding gift to his wife who subsequently lived there for the majority of her life. Dvorak was first invited to Vysoka by Kounic and his bride Josefina on their wedding day in 1877, and he was immediately enchanted by the beauty of the area. He received another invitation in 1880. During that summer and the three that followed the composer lived in a smaller house in the close vicinity of the chateau.
These first few visits to Vysoka 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, Vysoka 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 Dvorak 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 Trebsko (at that time Strebsko).
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 Vysoka, he also looked after his beloved pigeons. During his sojourn in the United States, the composer entrusted Vysoka miner Jan Hodik 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” Vysoka 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 Hodik:
“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?”
A few months later he wrote: “Since you had such a dry patch recently, tell me how our little trees are doing, have they grown? Particularly the little spruces at the back and the fruit trees, how are they faring and how are things in the garden overall now? And how are my pigeons? Are you giving them enough feed? And if the little ones are doing fine, let them fly around a bit.”
Dvorak usually left for Vysoka 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. Dvorak established a regular rhythm to his day in Vysoka: 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 Trebsko, a village situated not far from Vysoka, where he attended morning Mass and played his favourite Marian songs on the organ (he was apparently particularly fond of “A thousand times we greet Thee”). Dvorak liked the little Trebsko church so much that he purchased a new organ for it in 1894. It was consecrated on the day of Dvorak’s 53rd birthday (8 September 1894) and an entry in the village’s commemorative book states that “the famous musician Maestro Dr. Antonin Dvorak donated a new organ for our venerable church in Trebsko, which was consecrated and inaugurated on the 8th of September.” Below this entry Dvorak 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 Dvorak 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 Fenclu”, 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.
The composer wrote a number of works while he was staying in Vysoka (see list below); 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 Dvorak was supposed to have gone for walks and sought inspiration for the music for his most famous opera. After Dvorak’s death, the lake was given the name “Rusalka’s Lake”, and the composer’s summer residence received the designation “Villa Rusalka”. Dvorak’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 Antonin Dvorak 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.
A huge number of works were written while Dvorak stayed in Vysoka, of which many are among the most important of his entire oeuvre. Here, Dvorak began, completed or wrote in full at least thirty major compositions. These include, in particular:
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 8
Slavonic Dances, series II
In Nature's Realm
The Water Goblin
The Noon Witch
The Golden Spinning Wheel
The Wild Dove
A Hero's Song
The Spectre's Bride
The Devil and Kate