Each month, Composer of the Month dives into the life and work of the greatest composers in music history, to help you discover or rediscover their music and hopefully inspire you to study some of these great tunes.
This month, we meet with Antonín Dvořák, who was kind enough to prepare a selection of free sheet music of some of his most iconic titles for your Newzik library. Feel free to download the entire selection by clicking on the button below, or select your favorite pieces in the article itself!
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Composer of the month: Antonín Dvořák
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I have written more than 180 pieces. I am recognized as the greatest Czech composer of my time. So why do I always have this drop of sweat running down my back? Why are my hands shaking? Today is March 31st, 1901. I look at my watch. In just a few minutes the premiere of my opera Rusalka will begin..
I watch the musicians attentively. My eyes linger on one of the violinists who, with closed eyelids, takes advantage of these last minutes of respite to concentrate. As if to escape my own apprehension, the sight of the violin takes me back several years ago, on the banks of the Vtalva River in Nelahozeves.
It is in this small village north of Prague that I was born. My parents ran a butcher’s shop and inn. My father was an amateur musician, but it wasn’t really him who passed on this passion to me. He wanted me to take over the family butcher shop. Even though I started playing the violin at a very young age with the town’s teacher, my knowledge of music did not exceed what I practiced in church and at the inn’s balls. So my father sent me to study German in neighboring towns, as it was an obligatory language for doing business. I enjoyed none of those studies.
My former teachers, who certainly had already noticed my inclination for music, encouraged me to pursue a career in this field and managed to convince my father to let me do so. At the age of sixteen, in the fall of 1857, I entered the organ school in Prague.
Two years later I graduated as the second best student. After spending time playing in bars and brasseries, I became a violist for opera performances in the Provisional Theater. That was the beginning of my career, for two reasons. The first is that the pit of this theater quickly became a kind of composition school. There I learned a lot about music and its creation. The second reason is that this theater was also the place where I met Bedrich Smetana.
I had almost unlimited admiration for him. He took me under his wing, trained me and became one of my greatest friends. A friend, but also an ally because it was he who made me known in the artistic and cultural circles of Prague.
Antonín Dvořák wrote the Slavonic Dances in 1878. At that time he had just approached the publisher Simrock who commissioned him to write these dances. Not knowing where to start, Dvorak took Brahms' Hungarian Dances as a model. He only took them as a model, because the two works have little in common. For example, Brahms based his dances on real, typical Hungarian melodies, whereas Dvorak only took rhythms from traditional Slavonic music - the melodies being entirely his own. This work was so successful that Simrock commissioned a second series in 1878 (Slavonic Dances op.72).
The Slavonic Dances consist of eight pieces based on popular dance rhythms. For example, the first one is a furiant, a very energetic Czech dance. This first dance resembles a typical passage from Bedrich Smetana’s The Sold Bride. The second dance is a Ukrainian dumka, the third is a Czech polka and the fourth is a Czech sousedska.
These pieces are typical of Dvorak’s style. Indeed, what is quite notable in this composition is that never does Dvorak “quote” traditional Slavic music, but rather honors it, evokes its style and spirit by using rhythmic and structural formulas specific to this music. This once again testifies to Antonin Dvorak’s incredible mastery and artistic identity.
Slavonic Dances 1 to 4, arr. for piano
Rusalka’s first notes resonate. This small cello motif is as mischievous as it is mysterious. Then comes this lyrical flight of strings. Everything is going marvellously for the moment. On this string motif I can see myself bent over my desk, scribbling notes on a staff. I was often dissatisfied with my work and it was not uncommon for me to throw entire movements in the trash.
For a long time I composed in secret. I was never satisfied with my creations, and perhaps I needed time to build my own style. My music was subject to many influences, sometimes even opposed! A bit of German romanticism, sprinkled with the new aesthetics of Lizst and Wagner, with an aroma of the Czech language and tradition and, of course, with the gigantism of Smetana. This mixture - a hazardous one, I grant you - gave birth to the unique sound of my music.
During these years I composed my patriotic cantata Hymnus, which premiered in 1873 and earned me recognition from Prague’s cultural world. This support gave me wings. I left my position as violist to become the organist of St. Adalbert’s Church in Prague so that I could devote myself more to composition. Soon after, I married Anna Cermakova. It is hard for me to admit it, but it was with a heavy heart that I made my bond to Anna official. In fact, it was her sister, Josefina, whom I had fallen in love with, but she preferred another.
Dvorak’s Romantic Pieces were written in January 1887 and premiered on March 30 of the same year in Prague. They are composed of four pieces that are actually arrangements of his Miniatures, a trio for violins and viola. There is not much difference between the two, except for four additional bars in the third movement and a small harmonic reworking of bars 30 to 36 of the first movement.
The first movement, although at a fast tempo, is relatively quiet. It is only towards the middle of the movement that it becomes filled with passion. The second movement is very optimistic, with relatively simple harmonic variations. As is often the case with Dvorak, there are influences from traditional Slavic music. The third movement could be described as dreamy, while the fourth is certainly the one that will require the most work!
Romantic Pieces, for piano and violin
The last notes of Rusalka’s First Act ring. The brass instruments fill the hall with a heroic cadenza supported by furious cymbals.
The Second Act opens with an audacious brass theme, taken up by the strings leading to the dramatic entrance of the tenor singer. This adventurous melody takes me back a few years to the real take-off of my career.
In 1875, after having gained some public notoriety, I presented my Symphony No. 3 in a competition to win a grant. Living in abject poverty, obtaining this grant was a huge help, in addition to being noticed by Johannes Brahms, who was a member of the jury at the time.
As he had become my friend, I sent him Thirteen Moravian Songs in 1878, which he entrusted to his publisher. This spread my fame all over Europe. If you think that this success made this period of my life happy, you are far from the truth.
On September 21st, 1875, Josefa, my newborn daughter, died. On August 13, 1877, my daughter Ruzena died. On September 8, 1877, my eldest son, Otokar, also died. It is said that tragedy makes the most beautiful music: in 1877, I finished my Stabat Mater. There is a piece of me in this work. In a few years, it made me gain international fame - intercontinental even.
Then everything accelerated: in 1884 I started a tour in the United Kingdom. I was destined to be a butcher. In 1892, I was brought to America and appointed director of the New York Conservatory.
New World Symphony
The New World Symphony is certainly Dvorak’s most known work, if not one of the best known symphonies in the world. It is his ninth (and last) symphony. He composed it in 1893 and premiered it in December of the same year by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It is named so because it is part of the period of Dvorak’s life during which he lived in America (also called the New World).
This composition is very representative of Dvorak’s approach to creation. Indeed, Dvorak draws his inspiration from the land he walks on. If in most of his music one can hear his native land, in this symphony one can perceive heavy influences from American music. For example, the third movement is inspired by a festive scene in the Song of Hiawatha (an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, symbolic of American literature) in which the Indians are dancing.
The first movement is of great nobility. One finds there a theme extremely known and used in a lot of works in popular culture, grandiosely delivered by the brass instruments.
The second movement is certainly the most beautiful of this symphony: the English horn develops a nostalgic theme taken up by the strings, then a quivering motive of the flutes and oboes, followed by a lament of the clarinets recalling the funeral of Hiawatha and finally, in a very unexpected way and cutting short this sadness, the oboe launches a melody bringing back cheerfulness and freshness to the movement.
The third is a very traditional scherzo, inspired by Hiawatha but with influences from Dvorak’s homeland.
The final movement is divided between a combative brass theme and a lyrical clarinet theme taken up by the strings. Little by little, the motifs of the preceding movements reappear, confront each other, embrace each other, so that the whole symphony ends in the apogee of the initial theme.
The New World Symphony is one of those eternal works that no one will ever tire of listening to. If you stretch your ear a little, you will see that it is actually everywhere. In Gainsbourg’s songs and in Jaws’ Original Soundtrack, in video games and in the audio guide of the Statue of Liberty (track 203). A timeless work that has never been so well named: Neil Armstrong took a recording of it with him during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 that put the first man on the Moon.
New World Symphony, piano reduction
The second act of Rusalka leaves the audience speechless. I am carefully observing the reactions. It must be said that this part of the work is particularly dramatic. Rusalka is in love with a Prince, the Prince is in love with a foreign Princess. In a last surge of hope, Rusalka throws herself into the arms of the Prince, who rejects her. It all comes down to an exceptional flight of the soprano Růžena Maturová, resolved by a smashing orchestra. Everyone holds their breath.
The first notes of the last act ring out. A disturbing carpet of strings sends shivers down the spine of the audience. I really like the story of Rusalka. On the one hand because it reminds me of the one-sided love I had with Josefina, my wife’s sister. On the other hand because it reminds me of a legend from my homeland.
I have always wanted my music to honor my cultural heritage. It is filled with the pointed rhythms and syncopations of Bohemian and Moravian dances. The soul of my nation, the soul of my people are deeply rooted in my artistic language. My piqués draw the spikes of Prague Castle. My symphonies draw their power from the beauty of St. Barbara’s Church in Kutna Hora. My cadences have the complex nature of the Besedice labyrinth.
After two years in America, I returned to Prague. I became a teacher at the Prague Conservatory and continued composing. It is at this time that I began writing Rusalka.
Dvorak wrote the String Quartet No. 12 in F major, known as “American”, during the summer of 1893 while still in the United States. Like the New World Symphony, this piece of chamber music is one of Dvorak’s best known works. It evokes America but also Central Europe as he wrote it while he was in the town of Spillville, Iowa, a place populated by a large Czech population.
The four movements (Allegro ma non troppo, Lento, Molto vivace and Finale vivace ma non troppo) were written in less than a week, and the composition of the ensemble took no more than two weeks. We can feel in this work the perfect marriage of American and Czech music. The pentatonic scales of the first movement and the dreamy lyricism of the Lento bring an undeniable light to this piece. At the height of the third movement, Dvorak reproduces the song of Scarlet Tanager, a warbler he heard in his garden.
The dazzling beauty of the last bars reminds us that this work is deeply marked by nostalgia for the country of his birth. The Czechs living in this region, most of them farmers, haunted precisely by this nostalgia, would go to church to enjoy Dvorak’s music, thus recalling the landscapes of their native land.
American Quartet, for string quartet
Here we are, the last movement of the Third Act: “Líbej mne, líbej, mír mi prej”. The singer claims these words as if they were her own. “Kiss me, kiss me, peace be upon me”. In a final impulse she exclaims “by your love, by your beauty, my destiny is marked” and then, in a majestic crescendo, “God bless you, God bless you”. In the velvet of the strings, the opera ends calmly, as if soothed.
Rusalka was Antonin Dvorak’s last true success, and remains today one of his most famous works. He died on May 1st, 1904, at the age of 62. He is buried in the Vyšehrad cemetery, like his friend Smetana, on a hill overlooking Prague. He leaves behind him no less than 189 pieces. His music is unique, colorful, rhythmic. He is one of the rare romantic composers to have successfully approached all styles (except ballet). Less than a month before his death, a last tribute was paid to him at the first Czech Music Festival, whose program was almost entirely devoted to his work. Thousands of spectators came to cheer his New World Symphony. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend as he was too tired from illness.
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