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compositional techniques

The only official music education Dvorak received – two years’ study at the Institute for Church Music – merely provided him with basic skills in compositional technique. It took him a while to come to terms with this handicap and he found the obstacles difficult to overcome. He later noted: “I would have an idea, I’d write a few bars, but then I’d be stuck. It took a lot out of me before I finally discovered how to write a decent long movement!” During the initial stages Dvorak had to make up for his lack of formal education by closely studying the scores of the masters by himself and by summoning an extraordinary strength of will.


In most cases Dvorak’s themes are regularly periodic, clearly arranged, with a distinct climax. They are often supported by counter-melodies in the middle voices, which are written more or less as independent, self-contained thematic figures. Dvorak’s melodies are unusually varied and colourful, they are typically highly cantabile in character and the effect is one of immediacy and spontaneity.


Dvorak’s rhythms are extremely spirited, diverse and multiform. Dotted or syncopated rhythms are typical for him (these also appearing well before his American period). The middle voices and bass line are very often highly rhythmical, enlivening the entire flow of the music. On many occasions Dvorak used irregular rhythmical figures typical for the Czech folk dance known as furiant.


Dvorak frequently introduced a polyphonic structure to his voices, both in his instrumental and vocal works, using various technical devices to achieve this, from the canon and all manner of types of imitation, to the highest form of polyphony, the fugue.


The relatively frequent alternation of harmonic functions within short passages of music is typical of Dvorak. This tendency increased particularly with regard to works appearing in the last stage of his career. During his Slavic period the composer often favoured alternation between major and minor keys sharing the same tonic, or the so-called Moravian modulation down a major second. Dvorak attempted his most daring modulations over more extensive passages during his “Wagnerian” period at the end of the 1860s and beginning of the 1870s.


Dvorak’s art of instrumentation is universally regarded as one of the most powerful traits of his compositions. Through the combination of individual instruments and their appropriate use for specific sections of music, the composer achieved remarkable sound effects in many of his works. During the last stage of his career Dvorak developed this further, his skills culminating in the Erbenesque symphonic poems and his last three operas, in which he touched upon the principles of French Impressionism.

characteristic approaches


The principle of reminiscence was applied fairly liberally in 19th century music, yet Dvorak made exceptional use of it in his work. It features not only in his operas in the form of leitmotifs, but also frequently in his instrumental compositions. In certain cases this is merely the main theme from the first movement returning in the final movement in order to reinforce the cyclical nature of the piece; elsewhere the principle of reminiscence is employed with much greater deliberation, thus it plays a major part in structuring the work.


Dvorak used the principle of contrast on various levels: with regard to harmony (frequent oscillation between major and minor keys); tempo and rhythm (highly contrasting passages in the dumkas); or instrumentation (e.g. tutti orchestra vs. a chamber arrangement in the close of the Largo from Symphony No. 9). Dvorak had an exceptional sense of the contrast principle and was able to apply it to great effect.