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Antonin Dvorak. - Studies in Musical Biography.


‘The world stands aside to let a man pass if he knows whither he is going.’
Antonin Dvorak. - Studies in Musical Biography.


The student of history readily recalls that struggle, which, for thirty years, made the Germanic Empire a scene of horror. The terrible cruelty of the Thirty Years’ War and the devastation it wrought are a dark part of the development of national life during the Middle Ages. Bohemia, which had long been a prosperous and practically independent State and had developed a high degree of literary culture, suffered severely from this war, and finally lost its autonomy in the Austrian Empire. Before the Thirty Years’ War, Bohemia possessed a university which ranked with the best. John Huss inaugurated one of the greatest religious movements of the Middle Ages, and introduced an orthography, in the fifteenth century, remarkable for its precision and consistency. To all this prosperity and progress, the armies of Ferdinand II brought an end, and for more than a century Austrian despotism bore heavily upon the people, almost obliterating even the traces of former greatness.

But the Slavonic race comprises a restless people, almost Oriential (sic) in their nature. The turbulence of the Balkan states gives European politicians many uneasy hours, and furnishes many sensational dispatches to the press. The scheming Russian has precipitated a war which promises to be long and destructive. And while the people of Bohemia lay for a hundred and fifty years under the blighting rule of a powerful nation, it was not in the nature of her people to remain so, and there came a time when the severity of the rule was relaxed, and signs of a revival of literary and art life were manifest. But so long a period of depression could not be followed by a quick revival, and many years were consumed in the process of developing the new intellectual and art life. It is in the latter that we are interested because with it is connected one who spent some three years in our own country as artistic director of the National Conservatory of Music, in New York.


At the time of Antonin Dvoràk’s birth, little progress had been made toward a distinctive note in music, but the land was inviting in its quiet peacefulness, and progress was in the air. We get a significant touch of local color from W. H. Hadow’s description of the birth-place of Dvoràk. He writes in his “Studies in Modern Music”: —

“The village of Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen) lies on the Moldau, about a mile to the north of Kralup. The clean, well-kept cottages sun themselves upon a slope of the low hills, or nestle among the trees by the river bank, a tiny street comes trickling along the shallow dale like a tributary; at its mouth a great square castle rises on a spur of jutting sandstone and seems to dominate the very landscape by feudal right. Behind are uplands of corn and pasture and orchard, where you may idle for half a summer’s afternoon, watching the play of light tremulous among the leaves, the smoke curling lazily from the cluster of red roofs, and below them the brown, turbid river and the long timber-rafts floating down to the Elbe.

“It is one of the quietest of places, hardly a sound, hardly an animal, hardly a sign of life. There are a few geese meditating undisturbed in the roadway, there is a knot of children busy with some inexplicable game in a corner of waste ground, now and again a couple of gossips come to fill their shapely wooden cans at the village well, or a slow, patient ox-cart bears down its fragrant load from the hay- field. For the rest, everything is fast asleep, secure in a bounteous land that asks but little labor for the satisfaction of daily needs, and secure, too, under the government of Prince Lobkowitz, who owns the castle and the village and half the country-side, and who, though he never comes to live among his people, has always administered his territory with justice and beneficience.

“At the bottom of the street a lane turns across toward the church, passing on its way a homestead which could take rank with an English farm-house of moderate pretension. An arched gateway gives access to a long narrow court-yard, flanked on the one side by a solid, two-story building, white-walled and red-roofed like its neighbors; on the other by a lower range of offices and storehouses; while at the back, behind the stable, runs a rough wall, surmounted by a statue of St. Florian; and, carrying the eye upward, through a strip of coarse paddock, to the hedgerows and cornfields of the higher slope. A sign over the entrance announces that the place is still the village inn, as it was half a century ago, when Pan Frantisek Dvoràk held it in tenancy and served his customers in the little taproom by the door.”

In this inn, surrounded by the sleepy quiet of a typical peasant village, Antonin was born September 8, 1841, one hundred and ninety-three years after the close of the Thirty Years’ War. His father was a peasant, but of considerable note among his townsmen, and a musician of some prominence. The boy, growing into a sturdy youth, with all the characteristics of his race, was a lover of music, too, and listened with keenest pleasure to the national dances played by his father on various occasions. His early studies were conducted by Josef Spitz, the village schoolmaster. From him, Antonin learned the rudiments of both letters and music, with particular attention to singing and the violin. These studies continued until he was twelve years, when he was able to sing the solos in church and play in the local orchestra. At twelve, he was sent to his uncle in Zlonic for the sake of the larger opportunities afforded by better school. Now the organ, piano, and musical theory were, added to his curriculum. In 1855 another move was made, and Antonin, who was now fifteen years old, became the pupil of the organist Hancke, at Böhmisch-Kamnitz. German was the next accession to his studies.

At this point came the first serious pause in his career as a musician. The father, who had moved to Zlonic and opened a more pretentious butcher shop, needed the assistance of the boy. And as there appeared to be nothing to gain from a continuance of the musical studies, he saw no reason why Antonin should not come home and do his duty in the matter. Bohemia, still feeling the depression of her long subservience to Austrian rule, offered poor returns to aspiring young artists, and the boy had certainly shown no striking evidence of commanding talent. His education, well enough, perhaps, for a peasant of the better class, was not such as to promise success in a field already well occupied. So the fiat went forth that he must consider the days of his musical career ended.

Antonin did not yield the point without an effort to change the stern parent’s decision. He would show his father that he could create as well as play a little. So he composed a polka, and preparing and distributing the band parts quietly among Zlonic musicians, he made ready to carry his point by storm. When all things were ready, he called upon his family to hear his work, and be convinced of the righteousness of his cause. Unfortunately for him, however, his ignorance of the fact that brass instruments are transposing instruments interfered with the homogeneity of his composition, and strings and brass played loudly in different keys. That the resulting discord did not convert his father to Antonin’s way of thinking is not surprising, and, there being no further recourse, the boy took his place in the butcher shop, and the next year was spent in the performance of prosaic and distasteful duties.

But the twig had been bent, the demand of his nature would not be denied, and urgent protestations eventually won the day, and in October, 1857, he went to Prague to carry on his studies at the Organ School. His condition here was like that of the majority of those whose lives we have read; he was poorly supplied with money, so that to obtain his subsistence, he played with a small band in the restaurants and cafes of the city. Would we be likely to imagine a member of the strolling “German Bands,” whose cacophony disturbs our sense of pitch, blossoming into a master of composition, with a control of orchestral color beyond the larger number of his contemporaries? Yet Dvoràk was one of a similar band of strolling players. His knowledge was exceedingly rudimentary and his poverty prevented even the hiring of a piano. Music and music paper were among the unattainables, and the hearing of a concert was a matter of the good will of some friend. Three years of such experiences as make us wonder how he managed to learn anything at all brought him to 1860, when he not only graduated from the Organ School, but did so as second prizeman of his year. This tells the metal of the wandering cafe musician. His graduation brought little change in his material circumstances; scores, those necessary adjuncts of the would-be composer’s study, were still beyond his means; his study room was bare of such things. A place in the orchestra of the Interims-theater enabled him to live, brought him in contact with prominent Bohemian musicians, and widening his opportunities for education, established him in the ranks of Bohemian art builders.

The story of his life from this time until 1892, when he, in the fulness of his powers as a composer, came to New York, is the story of a student. He studied the works of Beethoven and wrote, made mistakes, perceived and corrected them, and persevered in the face of repeated discouragement until he won a grant from the Austrian Kultusministerium which enabled him to devote more time to composition. His compositions are not such as the piano teacher can use, but his position as a leader among his countrymen, his success in England, and his universal acceptance as one of these who have definitely influenced modern music gives his personality and life a place in our scheme of biographic study. The suggestions in which his student life is rich, I have gathered in the companion article “Dvoràk, the Student.”


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