Antonín Dvořák was one of the most popular composers of his day — a veritable star of the late Romantic period. He not only continued the broad Germanic symphonic tradition of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, but also, by infusing his compositions with the spirit of the folk music of his native land and other lands, he created his own musical tradition. He is most often credited with helping to capture and define the spirit of Czech music, but his beguiling melodies and compelling compositions have a universal appeal, unlimited by ethnic or national constraints.
Dvořák was born in a small town in Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic) in 1841. His father, a butcher and innkeeper, was also a semi-professional musician. Dvořák began his musical training in 1847, with the study of the violin; six years later, he was also learning the piano and organ, as well as music theory. In 1857, he entered the Prague Organ School. Upon graduating, he began his musical career as a professional organist, violist, and violinist.
In Prague’s rich musical landscape, Dvořák was able to hear Liszt conducting his own works and to attend concerts at which Hans von Bülow conducted and Clara Schumann performed. He played viola in a theater band for the first Czech theater in Prague, under the direction of Smetana. The band was also called upon to play orchestral concerts in different venues, including three concerts conducted by Wagner.
Privately, Dvořák had already begun composing, and, in 1871, he began to perform his own work publicly. When he applied for and won the Austrian State Stipendium granted to artists, the jury included Brahms, who was so enthusiastic about Dvořák’s submissions that, in early December 1877, he wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock:
As for the state stipendium, for several years I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak) of Prague. This year he has sent works . . . that seem to me very pretty . . . . Play them through and you will like them as much as I do. Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor! I ask you to think about it!
Apparently Simrock was convinced. Indeed, Brahms’s letter is credited with igniting the young man’s career, for, in a very short time, Dvořák’s music was being sold and performed throughout Europe.
Dvořák’s career got another boost when, in 1884, he traveled to England for the first time at the invitation of the London Philharmonic Society. On March 13, 1884, he conducted his Stabat Mater in the Royal Albert Hall; other concerts followed. He was immediately and exceptionally well received by the musical world of London and continued to make trips there for many years. The enthusiastic reception he received in London was vital to his subsequent success, because in England he met with none of the nationalistic tensions that sometimes dampened the reaction to his work in Germany and Austria.
In the following years, Dvořák’s international reputation only continued to grow. In 1892, he traveled to the United States at the invitation of a patron of the arts, Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He wrote and premiered the New World Symphony — perhaps his most enduring work — in the United States.
In 1895, he returned to his beloved Bohemia, where he spent his final years composing a variety of major works, including his Cello Concerto, various symphonic poems, chamber music, and operas. He died in 1904.
MASS IN D MAJOR
The Mass in D Major is the only one of Dvořák’s several masses that still exists. In 1887, Josef Hlávka, an artistic patron, architect, and friend of Dvořák’s and founder of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Art, commissioned the piece for the consecration of a private chapel at his country estate, Lužany Castle, in southwest Bohemia. The consecration took place on September 11, 1887. Dvořák himself conducted; the two female parts were sung by Hlávka’s wife, Zdeňka (soprano), and Dvořák’s wife, Anna (alto), accompanied by organist Josef Klička and the Hlahol Choir of Plzeň (Pilsen).
At the time, Dvořák was already famous for his large-scale choral works, including the Stabat Mater and St. Ludmilla. This Mass, however, was conceived for a more intimate space and occasion than those works. It was scored for four soloists (or semi-chorus) and choir, with a simple but ingenious organ accompaniment, and it was intended for an actual religious service, as opposed to a concert performance. (Later, Dvořák composed a more elaborate orchestral setting for the published version of the Mass.) As Dvořák noted in a letter to Hlávka,
I have successfully completed the [Mass], and I am very pleased with it. I believe it is a work that will fulfill its purpose. It could bear the dedication: faith, hope, and love of Almighty God, with thanks for the great gift that has enabled me to bring this work in praise of the Highest and in the honor of art to a happy conclusion. Do not be surprised that I am so pious — an artist who is not could not achieve anything like this. Have we not found examples in Beethoven, Bach, Raphael, and many others? I also thank you for giving me the impulse to write the work in this form, for I should hardly have thought of it; up to now I wrote works of this kind only on a large scale and for a large number of performers. This time, however, I have written for only a modest presentation, and still I dare to claim that my work has turned out well.
This Mass, therefore, is more lyrical and prayerful than dramatic. Its character has often been described as pastoral, reflecting Dvořák’s love of nature and evoking the tranquil countryside surrounding Hlávka’s chateau.
The Mass today is performed in its original arrangement for organ and choir. Dvořák infuses the beginning of the Kyrie’s simple, folk-like melody with the spirit of his homeland, which immediately distances this Mass from larger works by composers such as Mozart or Beethoven. The Gloria alternates between an almost dance-like expression of joy and reverent gratitude. Dvořák’s creativity in the Credo is particularly notable. He sets the text in a responsorial exchange between the altos and the rest of the choir, emphasizing both the personal and communal nature of this most fundamental expression of faith. The staccato suggestion of funeral drums during the moment of Christ’s burial is particularly striking. The Sanctus swells from its simple beginning to a cascade of hosannas, which leads to (and follows) the meditative Benedictus. Finally, the serene, almost leisurely fugue that opens the Agnus Dei evokes not an anguished plea for forgiveness, but rather a confident belief in ultimate redemption that underlies the entire piece.
— Nina Anne Greeley