Antonín Dvořák among friends and family

Antonín Dvořák

Along with Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák is perhaps the best known Czech composer. Contemporary accounts from the time of his life show that it was not just Dvořák’s music that made an impression on people, but his character as well.

Maestro Dvořák among his own

Antonín Dvořák’s breakthrough came in 1878, when his Moravian Duets were published by the Berlin-based music publisher Fritz Simrock following a recommendation from Johannes Brahms. Their success was followed by the first of Dvořák’s famous Slavic Dances.

Brahms, a German living in Vienna, eventually became a close friend of Dvořák and would continue to support the talented Czech composer. In Vienna, he repeatedly pressed for an annual stipend for talented artists to be provided for Dvořák. Brahms became a mentor and advisor for the Czech composer, serving as an example to him.

Antonín Dvořák | Photo: Atelier Jan Langhans

Both men were not only bound by mutual friendship, but also respect for each other. Brahms once said that he would be happy if the main thing that came into his mind was just a quick flash of thought for Dvořák. The Czech composer certainly did have plenty of ideas. In 1889, he wrote to the Simrock publisher that his mind is “overflowing with ideas”. At that time, he was thinking about his famous 8th symphony. Dvořák’s son-in-law, Josef Suk, witnessed this thinking process personally.

"That constant creative unrest! I see the master's hand, which constantly, sometimes even during a break in conversation, plays restlessly on his coat as if on a piano. He seemed to think only of music," Suk wrote.

Dvořák’s son Otakar also remembered his father’s composing zeal, witnessing it while his father was writing the Rusalka opera.

“We found out that the opera had been finished during lunch. We sat at the table and started eating. It was quiet for a moment when, suddenly, father says: ‘He’s died.’ Everyone was in shock and all of us, including mother, started asking father who it was that died. ‘The prince of course,’ father said, ‘she gave him a kiss and he, the poor lad, has to die after that’.”

There are several accounts that depict Dvořák’s peculiar nature. When Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický wrote to Dvořák that the latter is a big child, he was referring to the composer’s zeal and direct, almost innocent, nature.

Nevertheless, there were also some occasions when Dvořák had to make sure his behaviour followed strict protocol. When his works became famous in England, Dvořák started writing compositions for the local public, often traveling to Britain in order to present them himself. Among the guests in attendance were also members of the Royal Family and Dvořák, together with his wife, was invited into the royal loge during the main intermission at one such event. After a formal greeting, Dvořák’s wife was taken aside by one of the royal officials who started asking about what were her husband’s hobbies. The queen was apparently interested in this herself. Embarrassed, the Czech composer’s wife Anna, said that he had a great passion for breeding pigeons. And so it happened that, upon the Czech couple’s return home, they received a royal package carrying two pairs of English Pouter’s and four pairs of Jacobin pigeons. Dvořák was reportedly so happy that he jokingly told his wife: “Thank goodness you did not tell them that I like locomotives.”

Dvořák’s at home

.Villa Rusalka in Vysoká | Photo: Radio Prague International

A lot has been written about how Anotnín Dvořák would spend time in his favourite house Rusalka in Vysoká u Příbrami, resting and composing near the chateau of his father-in-law, Count Václav Kounic. However, Dvořák spent most of his life in Prague’s New Town and his last decade in a house on Žitná street. Several leading personalities of the time would visit him here. Among them was, of course, Johannes Brahms, but also Leoš Janáček or the famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. There even survives a short note in Tchaikovsky’s diary about such a visit in February 1888:

“Lunch at Dvořák’s. His wife is a simple, a nice woman who is also an excellent housekeeper.”

When it comes to Leoš Janáček, he even lived in Dvořák’s flat for a time – during the summer of 1883 – when Dvořák’s family were on holiday in Vysoká and lent the young Czech composer their flat. Another regular visitor to Žitná was the Berlin music publisher Fritz Simrock, who published most of the Czech composer’s work. Dvořák was also regularly visited by librettist Marie Červinková Riegrová, one of the most educated women in Prague society at that time. She wrote librettos for Dvořák’s opera’s Dimitry and Jacobin. She noted in her diary that she likes Dvořák.

“He is incredibly kind and natural…He is not arrogant. All the fame in the world had no influence on him. He has remained the same person that he was before.”

Another visitor was the poet Julius Zeyer and, in the same house as Dvořák, lived the famous sculptor Josef Mařatka, who would go on to create the composer’s bust in the foyer of the National Theatre. Josef Hlávka, a successful architect who was known as a philanthropist among Czech artists, would also come round from time to time. “What Dvořák says is sacred to me,” he wrote. Indeed, it seems that this was the reason behind the comings and goings of many visitors. Dvořák’s pupil Vítězslav Novák summarised it this way:

“He bowed to Beethoven, admired Wagner and Berlioz, very much respected Brahms and loved Schubert. The master knew all the beautiful and original compositions ever created in music.”

Antonin Dvořák in film

'Kolya' | Photo: Czech Television

Many compositions by Antonin Dvořák can be heard in the Oscar-winning film Kolja, by Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák Kolja. This includes the String Quartet No. 12 (2nd movement), the Biblical Songs (No. 4) and When My Old Mother from Slavic Dances (No. 7 opus 72). In their earlier film The Elementary School, the Svěrák’s used  Dvořák’s famous Symphony No. 9 "New World".

Dvořák's Humoresky also appeared in the film The Peacemaker, starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. Famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman chose to use Dvořák's compositions in his Oscar-winning film Fanny and Alexander.

In the film Queen Victoria with Emily Blunt we can hear the Serenade in E major, in the narrative fantasy fairy tale Star Dust with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, Slavic Dances are heard.