Lesson 28: Antonín Dvořák and Henry T. Burleigh

Antonín Dvořák:

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) became the leading Czech composer after Smetana (whom we discussed in an earlier lesson). Dvořák was a master in nationalistic music, and in it you'll experience the spirit of Bohemian folk songs and folk dances.

Dvořák grew up the son of a poor innkeeper and butcher. After working with his father, he left home at the age of 16 to go to the nearby city of Prague to study music. He sang and learned to play violin, viola, piano, and organ. For a while he played in an opera orchestra under Smetana's direction. When he was 36, his compositions were discovered by Brahms and his fame grew.

In 1873, Dvořák began teaching at the Prague Conservatory and married Anna Cermak. He won the Austrian State Prize for his Symphony in E-flat in 1874:

Dvořák became world-famous with his Slavonic Dances:

He went to England several times beginning in 1884, and his music was loved by the English for its melodiousness and its feel of the countryside. Stabat Mater was premiered there, as was his Symphony No. 8 in G Major:

In 1892, Dvořák went to New York City where he worked for three years as the director of the National Conservatory of Music. He spent a summer with a community of Czechs in Spillville, Iowa, soaking up rural America.

Dvořák encouraged Americans to write nationalistic music. He became enthralled with the folk styles there, including songs of Native Americans and African American spirituals. The latter he learned about from his student Henry T. Burleigh, who was a black composer and baritone. Dvořák said spirituals were "a secure basis for a new national musical school. America can have her own music, a fine music growing up from her own soil and having its own character--the natural voice of a free and great nation."

Let's take a short break to focus on African American spirituals and the composer Henry T. Burleigh (1866-1849) before we return to Dvořák. According to Dictionary.com, spirituals are "a kind of religious song originated by African-Americans." Spirituals are often written with freer rhythms and harmonies than most standard hymns. Many of them go back to the days of slavery, and they often speak of biblical stories of deliverance, such as the Exodus.

Several spirituals have become standard pieces of music for concert singers and choirs. “Gonna Lay Down My Burden,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In ” are all spirituals. Many spirituals were written and sung to teach about God, to encourage perseverance in the hardships that the singers were experiencing, and to remind about the promises of a better hope that was to come in heaven.

Listen to some spirituals here:

And here is one sung by Henry T. Burleigh himself, recorded in 1919:

This short documentary teaches about spirituals and Burleigh:

You heard in the previous video that the African American spiritual was the forerunner of American blues, jazz, and rock music. Learn more about this music in the course 20th Century Music Appreciation.

Now, this next video shows even more the influence that these spirituals had on Dvořák and his New World Symphony which he wrote while living in the United States. (If you are watching this with younger children, be aware of a photo at 8:00 of a slave with scars on his back from whipping.)

Now, let's listen to the amazing New World Symphony, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, which Dvořák wrote in 1892. It's one of the best known symphonies of any composer:

Listen also to his American String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 and see if you can hear a Native American tune or two:

After Dvořák returned to Prague in 1895, he became a member of the faculty at the Prague Conservatory once again and eventually its director.

More Dvořák music not to be missed:

Dumky, piano trio:

Cello Concerto:


Piano Quintet No. 2, Op. 81:

Even more Dvořák to listen to:

“I should be glad if something occurred to me as a main idea that occurs to Dvořák only by the way.” –Johannes Brahms

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