The first historical records which mention Zlonice date from the year 1318. By this time the town already had a castle and a Gothic church, on whose site a new Baroque church consecrated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was completed in 1735 (previously thought to be the work of Kilian Ignac Dientzenhofer; recent findings, however, show that the architect was, in fact, Frantisek Maxmilian Kanka). When Dvorak was living there the town had around 2,000 inhabitants. Zlonice, situated roughly 15 kilometres from Dvorak’s birthplace Nelahozeves, was celebrated far and wide for its fine music performances. We do not know exactly why young Dvorak went in 1853 – at the age of 12 – to live in Zlonice. Frantisek Dvorak may have sent his son to stay with his uncle on his mother’s side Antonin Zdenek in order to learn the butcher’s trade, or to improve his German at the local school. The fact that the Dvoraks were a large family without means may have played a role: Antonin Zdenek didn’t have any children and may thus have been able to ease his relatives’ financial situation.
The supposition that Dvorak did indeed train to be a butcher was only overturned at the beginning of the 1990s – the certificate of apprenticeship which had once been “discovered” turned out to be a fake. However, young Dvorak’s time in Zlonice did have great significance for his subsequent music education.
Here, Dvorak found an influential figure in the excellent musician and teacher Antonin Liehmann, who was an admirer of Haydn and Mozart, a fact reflected in Liehmann’s own compositions and instructive pieces which he wrote for his pupils. Dvorak initially went to him for lessons on the violin, considered essential for a student’s music education; then he took the viola and piano. Once Dvorak had acquired greater knowledge and skill, he was instructed in figured bass and the organ as well. Dvorak later described his early days with Liehmann:
“When I first came to Liehmann’s class, the steward’s son was there as well, and Liehmann was teaching him to play the piano. The boy was about eight or nine and he was very finely attired: he had this big flower embroidered on the back of his coat; I thought it was lovely. But I’ll never forget how I felt when I heard the boy play. He played a polka and he didn’t make a single mistake! And I felt so sad, it was as though someone close to me had died. I wasn’t envious of the flower, but the fact that he could play so well – well, I don’t think I was envious of that, either – but I was sorry that I was a few years older than him and I couldn’t play a nice polka like that. And so I thought to myself: ‘Lord, if only I could play like the steward’s little son!’”
Dvorak’s parents and the other children moved to Zlonice two years later, when there was little hope that the family’s financial situation would improve in Nelahozeves. They rented a large inn, no. 69, and the large family managed to squeeze into the living quarters – two other rooms adjoining the main taproom. It isn’t known whether Antonin lived with them as well, or whether he stayed on with his uncle. In any case, he spent most of his free time in what was known as the “varhanikovna” (organist’s house), where Liehmann lived and taught the piano. (The organist’s house and adjacent former infirmary now contain permanent exhibitions open to the public). It wasn’t long before Dvorak began to play and sing in the choir of the local church. At first he played the violin, and later on Liehmann let him play the organ. Antonin’s music performances weren’t restricted merely to playing up in the choir loft, however. Music was also performed at Zlonice castle and in nearby Budenicky, the seat of the Kinsky family, who owned the surrounding estate. The concerts performed here gave Dvorak an opportunity to become acquainted with a broad repertoire of chamber works.
The traditional story of the composer’s first love, Liehmann’s daughter Terezie, is also associated with Dvorak’s time in Zlonice. Terinka, as she was affectionately known, was about nine months older than Antonin and, according to contemporaries, they sang together in one of Liehmann’s compositions. An album entry has survived from that period, which Dvorak wrote for Terinka during a later visit to Zlonice, dated 7. 9. 1858. It’s important to mention Dvorak’s opera The Jacobin in this context. Although probably not intentional, librettist Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova seems to have “transferred” certain details used in the story directly from Dvorak’s time in Zlonice. The character of the village schoolmaster Benda faithfully corresponds in his typology to Dvorak’s real-life teacher Liehmann (with the exception of the latter’s partiality for alcohol consumption, which naturally does not feature in the opera); the character Terinka even shares the same name, and the scene in which Jiri sings a duet with Terinka is consistent with the above-mentioned recollection given by the composer’s contemporaries. It’s not surprising, then, that Dvorak wrote his musical setting of the libretto with such conviction.
Dvorak’s stay in Zlonice was interrupted by an intervening period lasting from September 1856 to July 1857: Antonin wasn’t evidently making any real progress with his German and so Frantisek Dvorak decided to send his son for one school year to Ceska Kamenice to live in a German-speaking family. He most likely decided upon Ceska Kamenice since Liehmann once worked in the region. It probably wouldn’t have been difficult to find a family who would take in young Dvorak, and Antonin ended up staying with the family of the miller Josef Ohm. Destiny seems to have placed first-rate musicians directly in Dvorak’s path – in Ceska Kamenice he was taken under the wing of Franz Hanke, graduate of the Prague organ school and director of the local decanal church. Hanke, who soon recognised an exceptional talent in young Dvorak, was keen to supervise his further tuition, teaching him music theory and the organ.
In July 1857 Dvorak returned to his family in Zlonice, but he didn’t stay for long. Frantisek Dvorak had in the meantime decided (undoubtedly also upon Liehmann’s advice) to support his son’s music education. In September of that year young Dvorak was sent to Prague to study at the city’s organ school. He occasionally returned to Zlonice in subsequent years, usually during the summer holidays or – as in February 1860 – at the time of the village fair. It was during these visits to Zlonice that Dvorak made his first attempts at composition. Apart from several dance pieces, whose authorship is ambiguous (Pauperia-Mazur, Franz Josef Marsch, Sokol March), the first documented work is the Forget-me-not Polka from 1854, of which the main section was written by Dvorak, and the trio by Liehmann. Another piece to appear in Zlonice was the Polka in E major, which Dvorak wrote on 27 February 1860 at the time of the village fair. Later on, Dvorak visited Zlonice at least three more times: in 1880, when he organised a benefit concert on 26 September in support of the construction of a memorial to Antonin Liehmann (who died on 22 January 1879), in 1895 (?) with his daughter Otilie, and for the last time in 1898.