His times: Now it’s the Czech Republic; in Dvořák’s time it was Bohemia – an Austrian crown land that was effectively more ‘European’ in a musical sense than it was Slavic. Romanticism was forcing orchestras (and symphonies) to grow bigger; Nationalism was seeing composers increasingly using indigenous folk material and ‘earth music’ in those symphonies (and other concert and theatre works). Dvořák excelled in both respects. Interestingly for Dvořák, the second half of the nineteenth century also marked the start of America’s tendency to pick-off and recruit big name Europeans; the composer moved to New York in 1892 to become head of the new American Conservatoire of Music.
His music: Dvořák’s nationality is there in the subject matter of many of his themed orchestral works and operas. But even in purely abstracted music it’s at work too – in the folklike tunes and popular dance rhythms that infest not only his symphonies but his chamber and instrumental works too. Organisation is paramount in Dvořák’s music, an asset he learned from studying the scores of his hero Beethoven and from the lessons of his own tutor, Smetana. Spirit, joy, songlike directness, seamless construction and the sense of a genuine man shine through the composer’s works, as well as an entirely natural and ‘Brahmsian’ sense of authority.
Himself: Dvořák wasn’t prone to the grand depressions or outrages of some of his Romantic composer colleagues. Instead, he was apparently a frequently joyful man who enjoyed the simple pleasures of work. And trainspotting.