Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Antonín Dvořák came from a humble background, one in which he was never expected to become a musician, let alone one of the most famous composers of the 19th century whose music continues to be played by orchestras all over the world!
He was born in a small village in Bohemia (which is now part of the Czech Republic) where his father was the local butcher and innkeeper. It seems the inn was a musical place – his father played the zither (a stringed instrument) and the young Dvořák learnt the violin. They both accompanied the locals, dancing and singing at the inn. It soon became apparent that the young Dvořák was very talented, and he was sent off to learn music properly aged 12. At this point he started to compose; his first pieces were a type of Czech dance, the polka.
His upbringing had a profound effect on him – all his music includes the typical Czech scales and rhythms he would have grown up with playing music in the inn as a child. This gave his music a distinctive freshness which quickly made it very popular.
But music was not necessarily his greatest passion! He loved trains, and when he visited a new city, he would research the railway timetables beforehand and then speak to the engine drivers about their jobs. He was astounded by the complexity of a steam engine:
“[The engine] comprises so many parts, so many different components, and each has its own importance, each has its proper place. Even the smallest bolt is where it is meant to be and fastens something together! Everything has its purpose and role and the result is astounding.”
This is a bit like a piece of orchestral music – it’s got lots of different instruments, each with their own part and every tiniest detail has a purpose. The result is (hopefully) astounding.
Dvořák was so impressed with steam engines he even said “I’d give all my symphonies if I could have invented the locomotive”. Luckily, he didn’t do that, and we have his wonderful music to enjoy!
Symphony No. 9: “From the New World”
A symphony is a work written for orchestra usually made up of four different parts, called movements. Often the four movements have distinctive characters:
- First movement – fast, but quite serious and dramatic
- Second movement – slow and expressive
- Third movement – a dance
- Fourth movement – fast and lively
Normally, symphonies don’t have titles, they just have numbers and the composer doesn’t intend them to represent anything in particular. However, Dvořák’s ninth symphony does have a title: “From the New World”.
The Americas have sometimes been called ‘The New World’, and Dvořák wrote this symphony whilst he lived in the USA between 1892 and 1895, hence the title. He was invited to go to America by some musicians there who wanted to encourage American-born composers to create music which sounded distinctly American. Dvořák was a good role model as his music is deeply embedded in the folk music of his own Bohemian home. They invited him to New York to lead a new music school they were establishing. Dvořák accepted, and while he lived there, he was impressed with American folk music and started to incorporate American sounds into his music (there are even some parts in this symphony which sound like they could be a cowboy strolling through the wild west!).
But eventually Dvořák became homesick and returned to his homeland where he was much happier!
First movement (Adagio – Allegro molto)
The piece begins with a slow introduction – quiet music played on the strings or woodwind, but punctuated by more dramatic moments! The music feels like it is just waiting to get into its stride and at 2:15 it does with a faster speed and a melody played by the French horns. The music swiftly builds up and at the climax, this tune is punched out loudly by the brass instruments.
There’s a gradual change of character and a new simple melody is heard at 3:25, which sounds like a folk tune – see if you can imagine people dancing to it!
Watch out for the flute solo at 4:35 – a beautiful melody, which is soon taken up by the whole orchestra.
The music continues using these three tunes (the horn melody at 2:15, the dance-like tune and the flute melody). Dvořák keeps changing the instruments playing them and combining them in different ways, sometimes they’re dramatic, sometimes jubilant, sometimes building up, sometimes calming down. Listen out for these tunes and see if you can spot the different instruments playing them.
As the music reaches the end of the movement, it builds up again, finishing with some strident and intense chords.
Second movement (Largo)
Soon after the atmospheric opening chords, you’ll hear a very beautiful melody which became famous after it was used in the Hovis bread commercial in the 1970s and 80s! It is played by the cor anglais which is like an oboe with a deeper and very melancholic sound. Though much of the movement is tranquil, there are moments of highly expressive, intense music and even a moment where Dvořák seems to take us outside where the birds are singing and people are dancing!
Other pieces to listen to by Dvořák
There are eight dances in the first set, each with a different character – some are calm and gentle, some are full of raucous, foot-tapping energy. Listen to some of them and see if you can find a different way of moving for each which represents the feeling of the music. Which one is your favourite?
String Quartet No.12 ‘American’ – Fourth movement
This is another piece which Dvořák wrote in response to his trip to America. It is written for string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello). The fourth movement begins with a catchy rhythm and melody, which is very dance-like. This keeps returning between sections which have different musical characters.