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Antonin Dvorak - The Masters As Students.


A sturdy body, superabundant health, an energetic disposition, readiness in action, and a keen love of music, these were the attributes of the little Bohemian lad, born just before the middle of the nineteenth century, in a land delightful in itself, but still feeling the burden of the rigors of the despotic rule of an alien government, whose birth brought rejoicing to the friends of his father, and whose name became, in later years, a familiar word in many lands. The father nourished the child’s love for music by playing to him the dances of his homeland, and the village holidays brought keen enjoyment both musical and festive. A boyhood lived much in the open air, amidst healthy pastimes, was a fitting preliminary to the years of close application which were to follow. And it was well that such endowments were his, for upon them was to depend the outcome of his life.

The fifteen years spent in preliminary study under the village schoolmaster at home, the kapellmeister at Zlonic, where he was sent for the sake of the better school, and at Böhmisch-Kamnitz, under the organist, Hancke, were years of joy because they accorded with his desires and led toward the goal he had already marked for himself. The organist Hancke must have found merit in the earnest boy, for when the father commanded his return home, the master protested vigorously, but without avail. These years were but the prelude to the real burden of study which was to come. Although they gave him little that could be shown when occasion demanded, they prepared the way for study from which the real artist was to be evolved.

And with this second period of his student life, we begin to read between the lines the lessons that biography teaches. The two main sources from which the aspiring young student gathers his education were singularly inadequate in the case of Dvoràk. As has already been intimated, the teaching of the first fifteen years was faulty in many respects, and it was the inherent power of the lad that brought good out of it. One can imagine the narrow scope of a teaching that left him in utter ignorance of the fact that wind instruments were transposing instruments. And so, too, with the resumption of his studies at the Organ School in Prague, to which he was admitted after the year devoted to his father’s butcher shop, he was denied the comprehensive training so necessary to the composer, and his opportunities for observation were equally limited. To undertake to become a composer when not only had the previous instruction been totally inadequate, but that of the school of which he was student was directed mainly along the narrow lines of organ and ecclesiastical music, and his opportunities to study the works of great composers were so limited by his poverty that he had no books, and could not find access to any library where they might be had, called for a determination of heroic type. And we may well congratulate him on the sturdy energy of his peasant nature, the vigorous health of body and mind, and the aggressive disposition which would never permit him to admit defeat. These qualities were to be tried as with fire and were to issue from the contest strengthened and made ready for the conquering of his artistic world. There is a mine of significance in the picture of the youth alone in a strange city, depending solely upon his own exertions for sustenance, and wringing from unwilling conditions the knowledge and power he would have.

Natures like his are not daunted by obstacles. The absence of encouragement and the apparent lack of power to do what he would were but incidents to be ignored. Believing in himself, his courage rose to each height required to overcome the most disturbing conditions as they confronted him. Sustaining himself by playing in a strolling band, he made each moment show some gain. Denied, by the nature of his work, the time for systematic study, he used the broken moments to the best advantage. Unable to pay his way into the concert hall, he made the rare opportunities when some good-natured friend smuggled him in yield a greater harvest of suggestion. The close of his three years at the Organ School, in 1860, saw the imperfectly prepared, hard beset peasant lad graduate as second prizeman. In this we have a presage of what was to follow. These three years of struggle seasoned his fibre and set a seal upon his purpose. He was now eighteen years and on the threshold of his artistic career, but, unlike his illustrious predecessors, he had not yet given utterance to anything that would differentiate him from his fellow students; he was a humble student among other students. There were yet no compositions to attract attention to the struggling worker. These did not begin to come until 1862, when a string quartet was finished, followed by some songs, and, in 1865, by a symphony in B-flat.

We have reached a period in his life when, again, we find much interesting reading between the lines. The next twelve years after his graduation do not offer much material for the biographer; they were filled with commonplace duties. He was still very poor, too poor to buy scores, and the purchase of music paper was still a serious matter. He had a friend who helped him, but his own energy and stoutheartedness were his chief friends, and the interest of these years grows out of the untold story of severe self-denial, self-discipline, and culture. His poor lodging is the center of attraction, and the hours spent there in close study of such scores of the classical masters as came within his reach are what engage our thought. For it was here, and by such study, that the poor student mastered the adversities of circumstances, and developed the technic and artistic speech that have made him known to all lovers of music, and warranted his call to the directorship of the school of music in this country where he influenced ambitious American composers.

It was the quiet study of these years, in which he was content to work without effort at being heard, that so disciplined him that, when, in filling his first important commission for an opera for the Bohemian Theater at Prague, he failed, he quietly accepted the result, quickly perceived the reason, and set himself to repair the evil. He had learned the secret of real studentship; he could profit by mistakes.

There is no life that can more profitably be studied than that of Antonin Dvoràk. The reader must be ready to understand what is not written as well as that which is set down. He should know something of the history of Bohemia and surrounding nations, and he must make his deductions wisely.

W. H. Hadow has written most interestingly of Dvoràk in “Studies in Modern Music,” H. E. Krehbiel contributed a biographical sketch to “The Century” for September, 1892. Grove has an interesting sketch in volume four (appendix).


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