Sunday, May 5, 2019

In Appreciation of Dvořák

Although I am usually not willing to spend the time and especially the money to attend live performances, I am very fond of classical music. Previously, I have posted blog articles about Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov, and I have long wanted to write something about Bach. But this article is about Antonín Leopold Dvořák, the greatest of all Czech composers.
Dvořák’s “New World Symphony”
“From the New World,” also known as the “New World Symphony” or more technically as “Symphony No. 9 in E minor” (Op.95) has long been on my personal list of “top ten” classical music compositions. I was moved by it again as I listened to it while working on this article.
Although Dvořák was born and died in the Kingdom of Bohemia (which became the core part of Czechoslovakia in 1918), from 1892 to 1895 he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was during that time that he composed the captivating New World Symphony.
For a rural Czech boy, the United States was, indeed, a new world. And Dvořák seems to have set out at once to learn from his new environment. He composed his Symphony No. 9 in the first half of 1893, and he related that he was influenced and inspired by Native American music and Black spirituals when he composed that stirring symphony. 
Some of you may remember (I didn’t) that Astronaut Neil Armstrong took a tape recording of the “New World Symphony” along during the Apollo 11 mission, the first moon landing, in 1969.
Dvořák’s Old World
Born in 1841 in a humble country village, Dvořák referred to himself as “just an ordinary Czech musician.” Both his father and grandfather were butchers, but he was sent to a music school in Prague when he was 16. There he studied violin and viola.
In the 1870s, his musical compositions elicited the attention of Johannes Brahms, who was only eight years his senior but already a noted composer. That acclaim led to public recognition for his compositions inspired by the folk music of his native land.
Book One of “Slavonic Dances” (Op.46) was published in 1878. It became highly popular--and has remained so to the present.
In the following years, before going to the U.S., Dvořák composed some of his greatest pieces--works that I like almost as much as “New World Symphony”: Symphony No. 7 (Op.70 in 1885), Symphony No. 8 (Op.88 in 1890), and the Carnival Overture (Op.92 in 1891).
Dvořák’s Transcendent World
The three compositions just mentioned are exuberant pieces manifesting Dvořák’s joy of life. But he was also a man who knew sorrow and deep sadness. At such times he found solace in his Catholic faith and composed works expressive of that faith in God who, while immanent in this world, transcends the world.
In 1877 he wrote “Stabat Mater” (“Sorrowful Mother Is Standing”), a prayer about Jesus’ mother Mary by his cross.
In a short period of time, Dvořák and his wife had lost three small/infant children. But despite the personal tragedy he had experienced, he refused to allow despair to overwhelm him. Rather than resignation or hopelessness, in that masterpiece, Dvořák’s listeners look through a veil of tears and see faith in life.
Dvořák often attributed his musical talents as being “a gift from God.” Upon the completion of one of his settings of the Catholic Mass, he proclaimed, “Do not wonder that I am so religious. An artist who is not could not produce anything like this.”
A few years after returning to Prague, Dvořák died at age 62. He was buried 115 years ago today, on May 5, 1904.


  1. Dennis BoatrightMay 5, 2019 at 9:00 PM

    The Washington University (St Louis) Wind Ensemble played "Slavonic Dances" at a concert in the fall of 2015, the start of my daughter's freshman year. I was there since she was in the ensemble. I have listened to it among the many classical songs played by the ensembles she has been in that I have recorded. I remembered that piece when listed above. "Slavonic Dances" would have to be my favorite Dvorak song since it is the only one I have in my collection.

    That was too easy due to my minimal exposure. I struggle more with your question about whether religious faith is required to compose it, which Dvorak proclaimed. I wonder if Dvorak had doubts during down times in his composing career (that I assume he had) since he seemed to think success was a result of his being so religious. I believe Dvorak and sports stars can be better because of religious faith and should be thankful for their gifts, but I question that religiosity is commensurate with success.

    I did a web search to see if Tyreek Hill ever professed faith in God. I found a quote where he was going to focus on being a better man and a better citizen and "let God do the rest." So it could be said that Tyreek is a great football player due to his religious faith. If allegations of child abuse are true, Tyreek needs more support to be a better man. He may still get that. However, in the short term it would seem religious faith has more value on the football field than off of it. And what about an equally religious man (or even more so) that is not successful in music or football?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dennis--and for tackling the questions of religious faith and success in sports as well as in composing music.

      I would like to think that Dvořák, as well as many who have excelled in professional sports, realized that their success was due to something beyond them. Acknowledging the presence of God in their achievement is humbly saying that their success was due to more than own efforts. That is, their success was because of something inherent, or external, that they had no power over but gratefully received. In religious terms, this is, in part, the meaning of grace.

    2. Dennis BoatrightMay 7, 2019 at 11:01 PM

      Before I return to the heavy stuff, have you listened to music by Satoshi Yagisawa? I have "Hymn to the Sun With the Beat of Mother Earth" on my phone that I like a lot.

      Regarding the meaning of grace, I am with you to a point, but then I stop short due to life experiences and thinking without the benefit of scholarly study on the topic. I agree with the many athletes (and composers) that acknowledge that external power. However, sports seem more complicated than musical compositions. I struggle with God's influence in the 1985 and 2015 World Series won by Royals teams that were not considered the best on paper. That certainly supports your point. But does that mean the other teams that lost to the Royals can blame God?

      Regarding Dvorak specifically, what I took issue with was his proclamation at the end of mass. That seemed more like entitlement than humility to me. I can imagine that provoking the following exchange:

      Then the Lord said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Dvorak? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil."

      "Does Dvorak fear God for nothing?" Satan replied.

      Last is a story about a WJC prof that gave the invocation before a football game. Dear God, We know you do not care who wins a football game...

    3. Dennis, thanks so much for commenting again. I am listening to "Hymn to the Sun . . ." Thank you for introducing it, and composer Yagisawa, to me. He was born in 1975, so he was only 29 when we left Japan for retirement, and "Hymn to the Sun" was composed in 2006 and maybe updated in in 2010. It is a fine piece, and I have been enjoying it--and hearing it for the first time, as far as I can remember. (Actually, I am listening to it for the second time now--and the first time was the performance by the outstanding high school orchestra of Inagakuen, a public high school (see this link:

      I think you make an important point in your second paragraph. I have thought about the problem in the old saying, "There but for the grace of God go I." According to one online dictionary, "This proverb is an expression of humility; in using it, a speaker acknowledges that outside factors (such as God's grace, or his upbringing) have played a role in his success in life." It was in this sense that I was referring to what Dvořák wrote as being an expression of grace--and I still think it can be seen that way.

      But, from the standpoint of the "losers" or those who haven't been successful, why were they denied grace? Well, perhaps they weren't; maybe God's grace was just expressed to them in other ways. Maybe the grace the "losers" experience is what they learn from their defeats and how they became better in spite of setbacks.

      As for the WJC prof--and it sounds to me like that prof may have been Dr. David O. Moore--I think he was certainly correct in what he said.

  2. I was inspired to listen to samples of "New World Symphony" and "Slavonic Dances" from a Dvorak album in my iTunes collection. Yes, there is a CD somewhere in my house. Thank you for leading me to wonderful, stirring experience. I am quite ecumenical in my musical tastes, and Dvorak is one of my pleasures, right up there with Bach and the Beatles.

    How could Dvorak, or any other artist, create without using his or her whole experience? So yes, religion was important to Dvorak, and I am sure it surely did impact powerfully his music. However, I am sure there have been atheist composers, and representatives of all major religions. Now an interesting contrast would be between composers freely creating what was most meaningful to themselves, versus composers creating on contract for a specific purpose. Yet, even movie sound tracks can be powerfully moving. Try imagining Star Wars without John Williams! Certainly music does not make much sense in a traditional materialist interpretation of the world. Somewhere in the mystery the magic happens. I rejoice that I live in a time and place with so much beautiful music!

    1. Craig, I was especially interested in your comment about "atheist composers," in light of what Dennis wrote above (and my response to him). It made me think of the old statement that one trouble with being an atheist is that there is no one to thank when they feel grateful.

    2. Good insight, Craig. One of my favorite "classics" is "Dark Side Of The Moon" by Pink Floyd. Very spiritual in nature, it closely parallels the book of Ecclesiastes.

  3. The first comments received yesterday, before 6 a.m., were from local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot:

    "Leroy, you are amazing! You have given me a wonderful rendition of Dvorak's life and music. Now, are you ready for this? While in high school I sang 'Goin' Home' as a solo in a recital. I love to listen to his 'New World Symphony'--I can sing along when I recognize the melody! Would you believe? I think my brother found the recording of my recital. Someday I hope to hear it again! I'd be embarrassed when Mom would play it.

    "I had no idea that he was Catholic or that he wrote the 'Stabat Mater'--every Lent we sang it when we prayed the Stations of the Cross. What a haunting melody! He was a genius that died so young. Thank you for the bio!"

    1. Thanks for mentioning "Going Home," the popular song based on the second movement of "New World Symphony."

      After we read your comments early Sunday morning, June and I listened to "Going Home" sung by the popular Norwegian singer Sissel--and June decided that she may want that sung at her funeral. (Here is the link to that beautiful rendition: .)

  4. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing up the life and work of Antonin Dvorak, a great composer by any standard.

    "I too am a lover of classical music and the 'New World Symphony' is certainly a great piece of music. I am listening to it now, motivated by your comments.

    "I do not know if one has to be religious to compose great music, but certainly one needs to be passionate about music--and gifted. I am passionate about music, but I am not gifted, so I have no compositions to offer.

    "One question, however, is why are there almost no great composers who were women? I have a sizable collection of classical CD's, but there is not a single composition by a woman. Even today, although there are some composers who are women and some who are great performers, the music field is still very much dominated by men. This is sad since I have no doubt that women have very much to offer."

    1. Eric, you raise an interesting question about women composers. More than anything else, that speaks to the general status of women in the 19th century (and before) when most popular classical music was composed.

      Here is the link to an article about Mozart's sister, which you might find interesting:

  5. Very inspiring works. Thankfully God gave us arts and brilliant artists.

  6. Three local Thinking Friends--Carole Zhand, Ed Kail, and Debra Sapp-Yarwood--all wrote about Dvořák spending the summer of 1893 in the little northeastern Iowa town of Spillville, which is not far from Decorah.

    Since I didn't have space (with my self-imposed word limit) in the blog article to write about that, I will tell about it briefly here.

    Just a few days after finishing "New World Symphony," Dvořák took his family to spend the summer of 1893 in the little town of Spillville, whose inhabitants were mostly Czech immigrants--and the location of the oldest Czech Catholic church in the U.S.

    Dvořák seemed to enjoy greatly the rural setting, and during his time there composed two of his noted works: "String Quartet No. 12 in F major" (Op.96) and "String Quintet in E♭ major" (Op.97).

    Here is the link to a 6/18 article in the Des Moines Resister about Dvořák and Spillville: