“I wanted to devote of my powers…to the creation of opera….I consider opera to be the most suitable medium for the nation.” Thus Dvořák wrote late in his career, a statement which might come as a surprise to those who know him primarily for his instrumental works. Dvořák actually wrote nine operas, but only one, Rusalka, is performed with any regularity outside of his native land.
Antonin Dvořák was born September 8, 1841 in the town of Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austrian Empire). His parents were innkeepers, though his father doubled as a butcher, a trade for which Antonin’s parents initially had him apprenticed. Fortunately they also had him take music lessons, and his teacher was so impressed with his talent that he persuaded the young man’s parents to allow him to extend his studies in that field. Thus at the age of sixteen he left home to move to Prague, where he initially studied organ but also became proficient enough on the violin that he was able to join a band. He soon began writing chamber music.
The 1870’s were pivotal in his career. His first opera, Alfred, was written in 1870 but never performed during his lifetime. A second opera, King and Charcoal Burner, was written the next year. It likewise was rejected, though some years later, after a complete rewrite, it finally reached the stage. In 1873 he married Anna Cernakova, following an unsuccessful attempt at romance with her sister (which was probably a good omen, since Mozart had a similar experience.) In 1877 he composed the opera A Cunning Peasant, his most successful work to that date, as well as the choral work Stabat Mater, which is still performed frequently.
In 1882 his opera Dimitrij represented a breakthrough in his opera career. His cantata The Specter Bride, written the same year, was also a significant success, demonstrating his interest in the supernatural, which was to become a key element of his later writing, most notably Rusalka. The 1880’s were also important in his career as he began to receive international recognition and made several trips to England to conduct his works.
In 1892 the American philanthropist Jeanette Thurber, whose dream was to inspire an American school of music, invited Dvořák to come to New York to teach composition at the National Conservatory of Music. He spent three years in the U.S. (with one intervening trip home), during which time he traveled extensively, frequently meeting with Czech Americans. It was during this period that he composed the work for which he is best known in the U.S., his ninth symphony, From the New World. In it he tried to absorb the musical style of Native Americans and African Americans and to write original melodies in those modes. In 1922 one of his students, William Arms Fisher, wrote lyrics for the Largo movement, and the resulting song – “Going Home” – became so popular that many people still believe that Dvořák borrowed this old spiritual when he composed the symphony. Though the words were added later, many listeners can no more hear that movement without thinking of the words “going home” than they can hear Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger (or, for that matter, hear Poncielli’s “Dance of the Hours” without thinking of summer camp). At one time Dvořák had begun working on an operatic setting of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and some of the music from that aborted project may well have found its way into the symphony.
A strong believer in nationalism in music, Dvořák preached that “The new American school of music must strike its roots deeply into its own soil. There is no longer any reason why young Americans who have talent should go to Europe for their education.” He encouraged American composers to root their compositions in the national music of “Negroes and Indians.” In an interview with the New York Herald, he said, “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies…These are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them. All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people.” The conservatory itself was unusual in its acceptance of African-American, well as women students. While none of Dvořák’s own students wrote music that has stood the test of time, these words could be seen as prophetic. The earliest American opera that is still performed today – Treemonishia – was written by the African-American composer Scott Joplin, though it was never performed during the composer’s lifetime, and the first truly great American opera – Porgy and Bess – was written by a composer who was a great admirer of African-American music, George Gershwin, and the opera provides a perfect fusion of classical and jazz styles. To a great extent, American popular music is based on jazz, a genre of music initially created and developed by African-American musicians. Many early American operas were featured Native-American characters, but these are largely forgotten today. Years later, composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives incorporated American folk motifs (albeit, not necessarily those of racial minorities) into their compositions, just as Leonard Bernstein was to incorporate the musical style of Puerto Rican immigrants into his masterpiece, West Side Story.
Dvořák returned to his native land in 1895. A few years later, he turned to Czech folklore to compose his opera The Devil and Kate, which today is second in popularity to Rusalka.
Around that time, the playwright Jaroslav Kvapil took a vacation trip to Denmark, and his own interest in national cultures led him the read the works of Hans Christian Andersen. One story in particular, The Little Mermaid, caught his attention, and he set about writing an opera libretto based on an amalgam of this story and a number of Czech fairytales. What happened next is somewhat unclear. According to Kvapil, he did not have any particular composer in mind when he wrote the opera, and it was only after the libretto was rejected by a number of composers that he showed it to the director of the Prague National Theater, Adolf Subert, who passed it on to Dvořák, a composer whom Kvapil was intimidated from approaching on his own. However, as early as 1897 Subert had written to Kvapil telling him that Dvořák was hoping to write an opera on a Czech fairytale plot. Also, one of Kvapil’s letters indicates that after completing the libretto he realized it was too good to give to an inferior composer. In any event, Dvořák loved the libretto and immediately began setting it to music, an enterprise which occupied him for seven months during 1900, leading to the premiere on March 31, 1901. The opera was an immediate success, though a contract dispute over a planned Vienna production slowed its achieving more widespread acclaim.
Dvořák’s final opera, Armida, was first produced in 1904, and it was not well received. Sadly, Dvořák became severely ill during one of the final rehearsals, and a few weeks later, on May 1, 1904, he died of an undiagnosed illness. At the time of his death he was widely recognized as the greatest Czech composer, a reputation which remains intact to this day.