Antonín Dvořák

I think most people nowadays are accustomed to including the three diacritic marks that accompany this Czech composer’s name, so there shouldn’t be much argument about it: even Last.fm manage to get it unambiguously right for once!

Curiously, the New Grove entry for him mentions that his middle name was ‘Leopold’ -and it puts it in round brackets and in bold, suggesting it’s not quite as optional as most of us might have thought. Nevertheless, no-one in their right mind is going to go around cataloguing their music as being by ‘Antonín Leopold Dvořák’, so you can forget all about the middle name from now on. If you weren’t aware, the little ‘hat’ on the ‘r’ in his surname means it gets sounded almost like the ‘dge’ in ‘bridge’. And the accent on the final ‘a’ is there to make it clear that it’s not DVORZHak, but dvorZHAK. But most English speakers, I think, are going to say it with the stress on the first part of the name and you shouldn’t stress too much (ha!) when they do: the guy died in 1904 so isn’t around to complain.

He was, as I mentioned, a Czech composer, having been born near Prague in 1841. However, back then, that particular parcel of land was part of the Austrian empire, so I guess he was technically as Austrian as, say, Schubert. Don’t tell the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra that, though!

His music is, however, utterly infused with the spirit of Bohemia, and can’t be mistaken for anything else. It is distinctive -and quite brilliant. It was fashionable at one point until quite recently to sort-of dismiss him as a not-as-good-as-Brahms composer, with a tendency to write tunes, but this is nonsense. He was at least quite as technically as proficient a composer as Brahms… and to these ears, a better one. The two were quite good friends, too, and Brahms is on record as having been ‘visibly moved’ by one of Dvořák’s pieces. He recommended him to his own publishers and, once Dvořák had moved to the USA for a spell, ended up actually proof-reading his compositions before they were published in Europe… so, Brahms thought highly of him, technically and artistically, and that should tell you all you need to know about his relative musical merits.

He was also quite a cunning businessman, but this causes trouble for we later listeners! Having contracted with a publisher to assign the next X works to them, he would quite craftily pen an extra work or two and assign them to another publisher entirely… giving them false opus numbers in the process, so that the first crew wouldn’t clue-in to what he was up to. This means that opus numbers are not a good way of cataloguing Dvořák’s works. Fortunately, Mr. Jarmil Michael Burghauser, a 20th Century Czech composer and musicologist, put together a catalogue of Dvořák’s works that sort all these numbering issues out: accordingly, you should get used to cataloguing his music by their assigned Burghauser Numbers. The famous New World Symphony, for example, whilst commonly called ‘the ninth’ should more accurately be called “B.178”.

 


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(since January 9th 2021)

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