Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904: from the trains of Nelahozeves to the rhythms of Africa

The Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony is one of the most famous themes in the history of music. It's a piece of music that you will probably recognize even if you've never listened to classical music in your life. The New World has been adapted a thousand times - the Largo has reincarnations as a gospel song, a bagpiper's dream, a jazz band tune, even as the theme in the very quirky Ken Russell film "Crimes of Passion" with Kathleen Turner as a prostitute. Meanwhile in Japan the New World is so popular that it is almost considered part of the country's national heritage. And in Britain millions of people will forever associate the New World with a TV commercial - a little boy somewhere in the north of England walking up a hill with a loaf of Hovis under his arm. Around the world Dvorak has become part of our musical furniture.

But of course there's a great deal more to Antonin Dvorak. From an early age he was a prolific composer, but it was his Slavonic Dances that won the 37-year-old composer international fame in 1878. The Dances remain one of his best loved works. Just as popular today are his operas based on Czech legend and fairy tale, Rusalka and The Devil and Kate, and several of his symphonies are in the regular repertoire of orchestras around the world.

Dvorak's music is a very individual blend of Romanticism and Classicism, and in a wonderfully eclectic way he was also open to other influences - from the folk music of his native land to the African-American rhythms he heard in New York City during the three years he spent there in the early 1890s.

But who was Antonin Dvorak? To find out more, let's go back to his childhood. He was born in 1841, the first son of an innkeeper and butcher in a village near Prague. His beginnings may have been humble, but there was no shortage of music in the Dvorak household. David Vaughan hopped on the train to explore the world of the composer's childhood and to challenge some of the myths about the young Dvorak:

The Young Dvorak - life in the village pub of Nelahozeves

I've arrived in the little village of Nelahozeves. It's about 25 kilometres north of Prague and it's the village where Antonin Dvorak was born. I'm joined by David Beveridge, a Dvorak scholar who has done a great deal of research into Dvorak's early life. It's rather apt that we've started here at the station, because railways did figure fairly prominently in Dvorak's life, didn't they?

David Beveridge at Nelahozeves train station
"It's quite well-known that Dvorak throughout his life was very fond of keeping track of train schedules, and going to see the trains even, when they came and left. For some reason it was fascinating to him."

So he was a 19th century trainspotter.

"Yes, you could say that. But I think what's more interesting about the train station and the train line here in Nelahozeves, is the fact that when Dvorak was born it wasn't here. There was no railroad here. It was constructed during his childhood and it was a very big event for the village of Nelahozeves, and Dvorak was here to see it being built.

"I can't resist telling one anecdote. There's a tunnel through the cliff just to the south of the village, and the workers who built it were from Italy. They were experienced in building tunnels through the Alps and came here to little Nelahozeves to build this tunnel. There is one report that after work they liked to gather around Frantisek Dvorak's butcher's shop - that's the father of the composer - and sing their Italian songs."

So, maybe Dvorak as a little boy was picking up a little bit of the Italian spirit.

"Yes, and in general it's quite surprising, when you start going below the surface of what is commonly said about Dvorak's childhood in Nelahozeves, the variety of musical experiences you could have here."

We know that Dvorak's father was a butcher and also had a pub. In that context was there a lot of music around in the family?

"Very, very much. The pub included a dance-hall. It was the main place, evidently, where people in the village came to be entertained on Saturday evenings when they had no television to watch. They came to dances in the pub.

"Dvorak's father was himself a musician. He played in bands and brought in bands to play for these dance entertainments. Of course they played music influenced by Czech folk traditions, but not only that by any means. The late Dvorak scholar, Jarmil Burghauser, pointed out that Nelahozeves, although it is only a village, is really rather close to Prague, and even in those days it was not very difficult to get into Prague, and it was very much influenced by urban culture.

"Dvorak's father himself loved to play the zither. He played it for his own entertainment and for the entertainment of people as they were drinking in the pub. His story is a very interesting one. For a period of about eight years, just before he got married, which means not long before the composer was born - because the composer was his first son - he was wandering around the Austrian Empire, primarily in the area of Hungary, and it's thought that that is where he learned to play the zither. So when we imagine this music which Dvorak's father played on the zither, it probably wasn't typical Czech folk music, and certainly didn't come from Nelahozeves."

So basically we've got the whole of Central Europe in one small Central Bohemian village.

"Yes, absolutely. Then quite another aspect of Dvorak's musical experience here was what he heard in church."

Church in Nelahozeves
We're standing on the platform of the station now. The church is literally about five metres away from us. The railway line was built right next to it. So this is the church where Dvorak as a child would have sung and performed?

"Yes, that's right. His first music teacher was the church music director, who was also the one and only teacher of the public school here. This man, Josef Spic was a typical example of the Czech "kantor". For us "cantor" is a musical term. It means a singer, but for them it meant a public school teacher. The reason is that in those days practically all Czech elementary public school teachers were trained musicians, and this one, Josef Spic, was a very skilled composer. When I say that he composed in the style of Mozart - he composed pieces that you could mistake for Mozart!"

Are any of them still performed?

"None of them has ever been performed [laughs]. I made a little demonstration recording of one of them for lectures."

The house where Dvorak was born | Photo: CzechTourism
Just to show quite how close the house where Dvorak was born is to the station, we're now going to leave the platform - and we're pretty much there already. We've just gone past the ticket office and here in front of us, just through the gate to the station is a building from the first half of the 19th century - two floors - rather an attractive house with a red roof, and that is Dvorak's house, which was once the village pub.

"The building was originally built in the 17th century, but it was gutted by fire at a very interesting time for us, when Dvorak was about one year old. There are anecdotes about how his father had to carry him from the building onto the hill behind the house, to save him from the fire. But the building was allegedly rebuilt very much as it had been before.

"It's a very impressive building actually. Many people when they see this building say - Oh, I thought Dvorak was poor, and this is the building where he lived! Well, this building included apartments for several families, of which the Dvorak family was one, and the main part of the ground floor, which is the part they occupied, was actually the pub."

So let's cross the road.... Now we're standing right next to the house. It looks straight across the village green up on the little hill opposite, towards the castle, the amazing Renaissance palace of the Lobkowitz family.

Renaissance palace of the Lobkowitz
"It would be nice to think that Dvorak, when he was growing up, had a beautiful view out of the window to the castle, as we do now. It's not true, because at that time, where there is this lovely park, there were farm buildings, which blocked the view up to the castle."

How did Dvorak come from being a village lad, growing up in the pub, to becoming - in his lifetime - and he didn't have a particularly long life - he was only just over sixty when he died - one of Europe's most famed composers?

"One obvious key to that is that he was extremely talented, which, however, would not have been sufficient by any means. He was not only extremely talented, but extremely hard-working and extremely determined, which is actually perhaps the most amazing of all those ingredients - that he didn't give up, because it took him a very long time to become established as a composer."

He was originally supposed to become a butcher like his father, wasn't he?

"Well, that's an interesting question. I've already mentioned the late Jarmil Burghauser. He made many interesting discoveries about Dvorak's youth, and he liked to emphasise the fact that Dvorak's father was a musician. Actually Dr Burghauser discovered that later in life, Dvorak's father also became a professional musician. He was terrible as an innkeeper. He just couldn't make a go of it. That's why the family was so poor. And the butcher's business wasn't too great either. Nelahozeves was poor. People didn't have money to buy meet here. Dr Burghauser made a good case that Dvorak's father really wanted to support his son in the idea of becoming a musician.

"It is often stated in the literature that Dvorak went through an official apprenticeship to become a butcher. Amazingly enough, professor Burghauser discovered that the certificate of his having completed this apprenticeship is a forgery."

So this really is a carefully cultivated myth.

"Yes, it's very mysterious. It's not a forgery that was made during Dvorak's lifetime. It was made afterwards, and evidently as some kind of a joke, which we, who are not involved in the situation cannot understand; I don't think even Dr Burghauser understood it. But without a doubt the certificate is a forgery, and Dvorak never did go through an apprenticeship to become a butcher."

Well, we've had a quick look at the young Dvorak, the place where he grew up as a boy. Before we take the train back to Prague: what remained of this upbringing in Dvorak's life? It's another of the myths of Dvorak that he never really lost his love of the country, his love of simplicity and the country life. Is that something that is the result of his rural upbringing?

Vysoka u Pribrami - museum of Antonin Dvorak
"It certainly is true that he liked country life throughout the remainder of his career. He didn't come back particularly often to this part of Bohemia once his family had moved away, but, as is well known, he bought a country home for himself after he had achieved a certain amount of success, down to the south-west of Prague in the village of Vysoka and he spent a lot of time there. And in America he was probably happier in the village of Spillville, Iowa, than in New York. He spent most of his time in New York - that's where the legend gets carried away - people think of Dvorak spending all his time in America in this village. In fact he spent only a few months there out of the three years in America, but it's true that he was probably more content in Spillville, Iowa, than in New York."

And he also loved pigeons. I've heard a story recounted by his son in the 1930s that he'd quite often prefer to talk about his latest pigeons rather than his music.

"[Laughs] Well, I'm sure there were times, depending on what mood he was in. I've also read accounts of experiences with Dvorak, where he loved talking about music and it was the most important thing in the world for him."

So it's yet another of these legends. So now let's get on the train back to Prague...

The Slavonic Dances: the beginning of Dvorak's international fame

From Nelahozeves Dvorak eventually found his way to Prague, learning to play the violin, and studying at the organ school. His fellow students would laugh at his incredibly ambitious projects as a young, penniless composer. It was a good ten years, before Dvorak was even able to hear his work performed. But once the Slavonic Dances were published in Berlin, with the help of Johannes Brahms, who was a few years older than Dvorak, the young composer's reputation was made. The dances were a huge success, and in Britain, for example, he won instant celebrity.

But to find out more about Dvorak's later life and work let's now get out of the studio again, and join David Vaughan in the Dvorak Museum in Prague's Ke Karlovu Street, just a ten-minute walk from where I'm sitting now in Radio Prague's studio.

The Villa Amerika - home to the Dvorak Museum in Prague

The Villa Amerika
I'm standing in front of the Villa Amerika, which is the most exquisite early 18th century Baroque building. It's a small suburban villa, standing in its own garden. This is a very quiet, peaceful place, although it's just a couple of hundred yards from one of the busiest squares in Prague. Just across the road is the psychiatric hospital where Bedrich Smetana, the great Czech Romantic composer, died, and that's rather apt, because today the Villa Amerika houses the Antonin Dvorak Museum.

I'm joined by the musical scholar, Dr Jan Dohner, who's going to show me round the museum. So we're going up the steps through the Baroque gateway - under a stone-carved lion - and in we go. Could you start by telling me how the Dvorak Museum happens to be in this rather magnificent - albeit small - 18th century building?

Dr Jan Dohner at Villa Amerika
"In the 1930s this house was given to the Society for the Erecting of an Antonin Dvorak Monument, and this society opened the Dvorak Museum here in 1932."

So let's have a look at the collections which are housed in this building. Where shall we start?

"Well, we can start at the beginning. On the ground floor there is a whole life of Dvorak depicted in documents, pictures and inscriptions. There are also things from his household, such as his writing desk."

So that's the desk he would work at...

"Yes, and above it there's a picture of Beethoven, that also belonged to Dvorak, and that's exactly the position where it was hanging."

So he'd be composing with Beethoven looking rather sternly over him.

"Yes, yes."

If we look here, there are various things from Dvorak's life - his birth certificate, his marriage certificate. There's quite a sad story attached to Dvorak and his wife, isn't there?

"Dvorak was a poor composer, and in 1865 he started to teach music in Prague families. One of the families was the family of Mr Cermak, who was a goldsmith. He had two daughters, Josefina and Anna. In 1865 Dvorak fell in love with Josefina. She was an actress - at the time a very young actress, but a successful one. But she denied him. She didn't marry him. She left the Prague Provisional Theatre, and afterwards she married Count Kounic. Later Dvorak married Josefina's younger sister, Anna; it was in 1873. So that was the story of Dvorak's marriage."

And do you think that Dvorak and Anna were happy together?

"Certainly they were happy together. They had a lot of children, and she created for him a very good home atmosphere, where he could compose and write all his things."

So, what else is there to see here in the museum?

Dvorak's piano
"There is, for instance, Dvorak's gown, in which he obtained his honorary degree in Cambridge. In 1884 he came to England for the first time. He conducted in London the cantata Stabat Mater. After that he was invited to England many times - in fact eight times - and his contacts in England were crowned by the honorary degree in Cambridge. And of course the English contacts were the cause of his invitation to the United States by Jeanette Thurber, to the National Conservatory of Music in New York."

How did she come to be so interested in Dvorak and so determined to support him?

"First she founded some opera company in New York, and afterwards she founded the National Conservatory. She was in search of a representative composer, who could become the artistic director of the National Conservatory and she hoped that Dvorak would found the American national music, which he didn't, of course! It's quite impossible. If anybody founded the American national music, then it was Charles Ives, I think - not Dvorak."

Let's move on now to the next part of the museum - through to the other side of the ground floor. Here we come to a piano.

"It's Dvorak's piano, which he acquired in the 1880s and is still in playable condition. It was repaired in 1996."

And is this piano still played?

"Not so often. It's played for recordings. Recently there was a recording of Cypresses and other songs by Dvorak. I hope the CD will appear soon."

We're now going up the spiral staircase in the side-wing of this little building, and the first thing that hits you when you come up here is an amazing room completely decorated with 18th century frescoes. So what parts of the Dvorak exhibition are to be seen here in this room?

Dvorak's tomb in Vysehrad
"Here is a temporary exhibition concerning Dvorak's funeral, which is rather a rare theme, but we have his jubilee this year, so we are presenting some memorabilia - some pictures which are not often seen, or not at all seen - there is also a Dvorak death-mask, and it's accompanied by two pictures of Dvorak lying in his coffin."

One of the things that strike me is that - in a newspaper which you have on show here from the day after Dvorak died - the whole front page is devoted to the news of Dvorak's death. There aren't many composers who achieved that kind of celebrity in their own lifetime, are there?

"No, there are not. Especially there are not so many Czech composers who are so famous - world famous. You know, it is connected with Dvorak's career in England and the United States, and also in the German-speaking countries."

And in this exhibition about Dvorak's funeral, there are photographs from the funeral itself. It looks from the pictures that it must have been an enormous event.

"It was certainly an enormous event. I think it was an event on the scale of a state funeral, because all the important people from political and cultural life took part."

And was Dvorak's own music performed in the course of the funeral?

"Yes, there were some parts of his Requiem performed from the balcony of the National Theatre when the cortege went past."