About this Recording

Antonin Dvořák (1841 - 1941)
Symphony No.9 in E Minor, Op. 95 (From the New World)
Symphonic Variations, Op. 78


Antonin Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a village butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, and some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is no record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued his schooling, learning German and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, from which he graduated two years later.

In the year that followed, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komsak which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and the Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the theatre orchestra, to take a wife and a position as an organist and support himself by additional private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.

Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a government grant, through the agency of the critic Eduard Hanslick and of Brahms. With the encouragement of the latter came opportunities for the wider dissemination of his music and Dvořák was to win particular popularity with his Moravian Duets, followed by the first set of Slavonic Dances, originally also for piano duet. There were visits to Germany and to England, and a series of compositions that secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.

Early in 1891 Dvořák became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, wife of a rich American grocer, to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a position he took up that autumn. Here it was hoped that he would establish a new American tradition of music, while serving as a distinguished figurehead for the new institution.

By 1895, in the course of a second two-year contract. Dvořák had had enough of America. In any case Mrs. Thurber had found it difficult to pay him as regularly as she should have done. Returning to Europe, he resumed his duties at the Prague Conservatory of which he was to become nominal director in 1901, able to spend most of his time at his country retreat with his family and his pigeons. He died on 1 May. 1904.

Dvořák wrote nine symphonies, variously numbered, since he tried to discard earlier attempts at the form, undertaken in 1863. The last of the symphonies, published as No.5, but in fact the ninth. has the explanatory title "From the New World". It was written in the early months of 1893 and first performed at Carnegie Hall on 16th December of the same year by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Anton Seidl. It was an immediate success.

Dvořák was deeply influenced by America and by the Indian and Negro music he heard, as well as the songs of Stephen Foster. In Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha he found an expression of American identity that also found a place in his symphony. He made it clear that all the themes were original, although shaped by the use of particular rhythmic and melodic features of music of the New World. Nevertheless the symphony retains an inevitable air of Bohemia.

Mrs. Thurber had hoped that Hiawatha might form the basis of an American opera from the composer she had hired. The slow movement of the symphony, with its famous cor anglais solo, is described by a note of the composer's as Morning, possibly the blessing of the cornfields in Longfellow's poem, rather than the burial in the forest that has been identified with the movement. The third movement is associated with Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, with the bridegroom. Whirling, spinning round in circles, Leaping o'er the guests assembled, energetic activity contrasted with a more properly Bohemian trio section. The final movement, with its references to what has passed, forms a brilliant conclusion, ending in the quietest possible sustained chord.

Dvořák's Symphonic Variations, Opus 78, were written in the late summer of 1877 and show the composer's particular ability in the form. It is said that the composition was in answer to a challenge from a friend to write variations on a theme that seemed impossible for the purpose, the male part-song “Já jsem husler” (I am a fiddler). The theme itself, baldly stated, is followed by twenty-seven variations of wit, ingenuity and remarkable invention, with a splendid command of the resources of the orchestra. The series ends with a fugue, followed by a series of episodes that establish a much less formal mood.

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