b Nelahozeves (Bohemia), September 8, 1841
d Prague, May 1, 1904
Mostly known for his symphonies, concerti and chamber works, Antonín Dvořák composed 10 operas, an art form he once declared to be his preferred genre. Born to humble peasant stock, Dvořák barely escaped oblivion when he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle at the age of 12. There he fostered an interest in music, becoming adept on a number of instruments and graduating from Prague’s School of Organ in 1859. He joined a band of local players, which eventually became the pit orchestra of the city’s new Provisional Theater three years later. In 1863, he had the opportunity to play a concert of Wagner’s music, with the great composer himself conducting, and was influenced as a result. A violist for almost a decade, Dvořák would be exposed to a wide variety of operatic styles during this period, including works by Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Charles Gounod, Jacques Offenbach and Carl Maria von Weber.
At that time, the notion of opera in the Czech language was in its infancy (as the transitory word “provisional” in the theater’s title would seem to indicate). Then part of the Austrian Empire, Bohemia was required to use German as its official language. Only by the middle of the century were major works being performed in Czech. The leader of the movement was the theater’s director, Bedřich Smetana, whose operas began to define a national style. Other composers of note included Karel Šebor, Karel Bendl, Richard Rozkšný, Voitěch Hřimalý, Zdenděk Fibich, Karel Kovařovic, Otakar Ostrčil, Vítězslav Novák, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, and most notably, Leoš Janáček.
Not willing to succumb to this patriotic fervor, Dvořák was strangely out-of-pace with his contemporaries, often choosing subjects and locales far from his native lands. His first opera, Alfred (1870/1938; set to German text) tells the struggle between England’s Alfred the Great and the invading Danes. Vanda (1876), written in the style of French Grand Opera, is set among Polish royalty, and the equally epic Dimitrij (1882) plays out in the Russian court, a sort of sequel to Boris Godunov. Jakobin (1889), though taking place in Bohemia, has its undercurrents in the rhetoric of the French Revolution and the tried-and-true theme of Armida (1904) is set during the Medieval Crusades. Even Rusalka’s wispy milieu is indeterminate. Coupled with charges of excessive Wagnerism, Dvořák was one to step to his own tune.
Written by a composer with a rich musical palette underlying problematic texts (unfortunately, he was not a strong dramatist), Dvořák’s operas were met with mixed reviews and are seldom produced beyond the Czech border. His fame chiefly rests on his orchestral works, which after a few false starts, he began to tour around Europe. In 1891, he was invited by Jeanette Thurber (founder of the ill-fated American Opera Company, a brief rival to the newly opened Metropolitan Opera) to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music, a three-year commitment with generous summer breaks. Rather than returning to Prague, Dvořák spent his first vacation in Czech-populated Spillville, Iowa. A great lover of trains, the composer took many short trips around the Upper Midwest, including one to Minneapolis for a visit to Minnehaha Falls while considering a setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. From this period comes one of his most popular works, the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” as well as several other regionally-inspired pieces, such as the two string quartets (in f and e-flat), both called the “American,” and the famous Cello Concerto in b minor.
Toward the end of his life, Dvořák turned away from “abstract” music to more programmatic works. Rusalka dates from this period as does Armida, his final opera. Sadly, the composer died within months of its controversial premiere, unable to defend its merits or revise accordingly.