Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904) was born 15 miles north of Prague in Nelahozeves, a small village dominated by a large renaissance palace belonging to the Lobkowitz Family.
Antonin’s mother, Anna, was the daughter of a steward of the Lobkowitz estate, while his father was a prominent member of the local community, being the butcher and the local inn-keeper. The steward must have had plenty of business with the local butcher! Father was also zither-player in the local dance band. As a young child Antonin played violin in the band. He also sang in the local church choir. The Kantor, Joseph Spitz, proved a good teacher, and Dvorak’s parents had ambitions that Antonin might become such an organist and choir-master. Like Haydn’s parents, they saw their son’s obvious musical ability as a means to social upward mobility. To this end it also was ensured that he learn German, this being the language of the upper echelons of society.
When he was 16 he gained entrance to the Prague Organ School. Apart from training as an organist and developing his composition skills, he played viola in the school’s orchestra. The repertoire was all Germanic, ranging from Beethoven to contemporaries such as Wagner and Liszt. He graduated from the school two years later as second-best student. He applied for a position of church organist, but his application was refused.
While at the organ school, he had also joined Karel Komzak’s Dance Band. This may well have been economic necessity, but it must have been a natural and congenial thing to do, given his upbringing.
Having failed to get a job as church organist, he continued to play with the dance band, playing in restaurants and for balls. When, in 1862, the Czech National Theatre opened in Prague, it was Karel Komzak’s band that became the core of the theatre orchestra, with Dvorak as the principal violist.
While he was playing in the theatre orchestra, Dvorak was privately composing, and in 1871 he left the orchestra to concentrate on his composition. He scraped a living by giving piano lessons, and was very poor for the next 7 years.
In 1874 he married Anna Cermakova and also became a church organist, no doubt to augment his income.
One of his best friends was Johannes Brahms. It was Brahms who, in 1877, wrote a letter to his publisher Simrock in Berlin warmly recommending Dvorak’s music and including, as an example, 10 duets for soprano and piano. Simrock accepted them and commissioned some (the) Slavonic Dances for piano duet, along with the version for orchestra. These received an enthusiastic review in the Berlin Nationalzeitung which brought about an assault on sheet-music shops. Slavonic Dances sold out in days.The unknown Czech composer suddenly became known and performed in concert halls world-wide. He ceased to be a church organist.
Despite his international success, Dvorak felt his music was never really accepted in the German-speaking world. Simrock, for instance, offered him 3,000 marks for his 7th symphony, whereas Brahms would be offered 10,000 marks for a similar work. But he was immensely successful abroad, particularly in England. He received commissions from the Philharmonic Society and the Birmingham and Leeds festivals. He also made friends with Henry and Alfred Littleton who were the owners of the publishers Novello. They offered much better terms than Simrock. Dvorak’s dealings with Simrock suddenly took a turn for the better.
Dvorak was certainly no longer poor. In later life he returned to the country, bought himself a property 30 miles from Prague, and also a summer retreat in the forest where he could ‘enjoy the beauties of God’s nature’.