česky | English

dvorak and prague

As is the case today, during Dvorak’s lifetime Prague was the social and cultural centre of the Czech lands. Its rich cultural past had always attracted domestic and foreign artists working in various fields. Musicians who came to the capital included – if we exclude famous Czech names – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Fryderyk Chopin, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg and many more. When Dvorak’s father Frantisek decided to encourage his son’s exceptional talent by sending him away to study music, the natural choice was Prague; there was evidently no question of sending him anywhere else. It is very difficult to ascertain with greater accuracy the date Dvorak moved from Zlonice to Prague; sources are vague and sometimes even contradict each other. In any case, the move occurred sometime in the autumn of 1857, probably in September, thus not long after Dvorak’s 16th birthday.
Even though Prague was very different back then, and the atmosphere of the city was much more provincial than it is today, it would have meant a fundamental change for Dvorak. The city’s musical environment – which would have interested him the most – was incomparable with what he had been accustomed to up until this time. He would have been able to attend concerts organised by the Conservatoire, the Musicians’ Association, the Cecilian Association, the Bennewitz Quartet, and also appearances by foreign artists who were recognised as world-class performers in their day: Hans von Bulow, Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt and others. In addition, German operas were staged in the Estates Theatre and, from 1859, also Czech productions in the New Town Theatre. Dvorak soon began to take an active role in Prague’s music circles: he joined the Cecilian Association Orchestra and, during his studies at organ school, he took part in numerous concerts as a viola player.


organ school

The list of Prague music institutions associated with Dvorak begins with the so-called organ school (officially the Institute for Church Music), which was what brought him to Prague in the first place. The school had an excellent reputation, it boasted a series of renowned teachers and represented serious competition for the Prague Conservatoire. Unlike the latter, however, it focused more on the instruction of future organists. The school was located in building no. 238/1 in the passageway between Konviktska and Bartolomejska streets (the courtyard with its characteristic galleries has survived to this day) and it only had three rooms and one organ. The atmosphere of the place where Dvorak spent two years studying was well documented by the composer himself later on: “At the organ school everything smelt mouldy. Even the organ!
Nevertheless, the building’s location was a great advantage for Dvorak: it was situated not far from his first Prague address in Dominikanska (today Husova) street, no. 238. He was living with his cousin Marie Plivova and her husband, who earned a living as a tailor. The house still stands today and its facade looks much the same as it did in Dvorak’s day. His father’s financial situation was deteriorating with each passing year, which was probably one of the main reasons Antonin went to stay with his aunt Josefa Duskova on Karlovo namesti [Charles Square] in 1860 (when he was nineteen), in house no. 558, known as “Na kremenci” (or “Na kremelci”). The rent was probably lower and Dvorak would have been able to “work off” the amount by teaching the Duseks’ daughter Anna who was about to start school. A major part of the composer’s life is associated with the house “Na kremenci” and with Karlovo namesti itself.

238 Dominikanska (Husova) street

Dvorak lived with the Duseks (apart from a period of about two years) from 1860 to 1873, when he got married, and it was here that he wrote a series of important works, such as the Hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain” and Symphony No. 3 in E flat major. The composer was very fond of the park on Karlovo namesti and, for the rest of his life, he would come here on his morning walks to listen to the birdsong. On many occasions Dvorak would also attend the early morning services at the church of St Ignatius on the corner of Jecna street and Karlovo namesti.


Provisional Theatre 

The year 1862 represented a turning point in Dvorak’s life: the Komzak Ensemble, in which he played the viola, was engaged as the core of the orchestra affiliated to the newly opened Provisional Theatre. Its building was situated on the same plot of land on which the National Theatre was later constructed. Remnants of the Provisional Theatre are visible on this site to this day – the building was incorporated into the structure of the National Theatre and forms its central part. Dvorak spent nine years playing in the opera orchestra, a period which had a fundamental influence on his compositional work, since he was given the opportunity to familiarise himself well with a broad spectrum of compositions from past and present, and not only operatic works; the orchestra commonly gave concert performances as well.
At the end of 1863 the Duseks, with whom Dvorak was staying, decided to move from Karlovo namesti to nearby Vaclavska street (no. 327), however, Dvorak did not live in their new flat for very long, probably only for a few months. He increasingly felt the need to have access to a piano which, for the time being, he couldn’t afford to purchase or hire. Sometime during the course of 1864 he thus accepted an offer from his friend Moric Anger, a colleague from the theatre orchestra, to take up residence with him on Senovazne namesti no. 1375 (now 19).
Anger owned a piano, perhaps only an old spinet which had seen better days, as suggested by Anger’s describing it as a “Jew’s harp”. But it was evidently enough for Dvorak’s needs. While he was living on Senovazne namesti he turned out his first two symphonies and the song cycle Cypresses. All the same, living in the merry company of Anger and several other young men in a single room was not ideal for focused work. Boleslav Kalensky, whom Dvorak befriended later on, described this episode in the composer’s life, stating: “M. Anger was not here on his own. Living with him was a young medical student, Karel Cech, later operatic soloist and brother of Adolf Cech, who was at that time first bandmaster affiliated to the municipal theatre in Olomouc, later conductor at the National Theatre. Apart from him there were also two grammar school students in the flat, and a Prague tourist guide called Andel [“Angel”]. The latter would come home very late, often in high spirits thanks to the drink inside him, and get undressed in a very noisy fashion, waking up the other four. There were altercations on a daily basis because of this, after which all the roommates would send Andel to hell, calling him, more appropriately, a devil.”

19 Senovazne namesti

558 Karlovo namesti, “Na kremenci”

33 Na Florenci street

After about a year Dvorak was glad to be able to move back to the much more peaceful environment of the Dusek family home. In the meantime the Duseks had left their flat in Vaclavska street and had returned to their original address on Karlovo namesti, no. 558, but they were now occupying a different flat in the same building. Here Dvorak lived without interruption for the next eight years. Anna, the daughter of Dvorak’s aunt Josefa Duskova, wrote many years later about what she remembered from this period, and we learn from her memoirs that, by this time, Dvorak had a hired piano at his disposal. “He often started composing as soon as he woke up – while he was still in bed – and if a thought came into his head, he would tap out the melody on his quilt with his fingers. If he was writing at the table, he would hold the quill between his teeth and finger his coat as if he were playing the piano, or he would tap out the tune on his legs. A moment later he would turn to the piano, play something through and sing softly to himself as he did so. When he played in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, he’d take me with him to a performance. [...] More often than not I would sneak into the room, go up to the piano, clasp my hands together and plead with him, sometimes for a full fifteen minutes: Anton, please take me with you today! He would stare fixedly at me, smile, whistle to himself – but he was far away and probably didn’t know I was even there! When he came back down to earth from wherever he was up there, he’d bark at me: What d’you want? And I’d jump back in surprise.”
House no. 558 on Karlovo namesti (Charles Square) has survived to this day, but it looked quite different in Dvorak’s day, when he was living there. Dvorak married Anna Cermakova in November 1873 in the church of St Peter and, for a short time, he moved into the flat occupied by Anna, her siblings and her mother, the recently widowed Klotilda Cermakova, at 1413/27 Na Florenci street. (The house was later pulled down and today another stands in its place, now no. 33.)
It wasn’t long before the newlyweds managed to find their own flat on Na Rybnicku street, no. 1364/14, and they moved in at the beginning of 1874. (This house was also pulled down later on and was replaced by another, today no. 12.) Another location closely associated with Dvorak during this period is the church of St Adalbert, where the composer held the post of organist during the years 1874–1877. Young Josef Bohuslav Foerster, who sang in the church choir at that time, later stated in his memoirs: “When [Dvorak] turned up, he didn’t take any notice of anyone, he didn’t greet anyone, and immediately went to sit at the organ. The console of the old instrument was positioned to the side, the organist had to follow the conductor’s baton through a mirror placed above the keyboard, and so he sat at the organ with his back to the choir, the conductor and all the other performers. Thus it was only rarely that I saw Dvorak’s face, but I remember that, back then, when I was a child, this stern-looking man, always earnest and occupied with strange thoughts, put the wind up me.”
church of St Adalbert

1364/14 (12) Na Rybnicku street
The church of St Adalbert is situated between Vojtesska, Sitkova and Pstrossova streets, near Masarykovo nabrezi. Originally a Gothic building, it was renovated in the Baroque style and, during Dvorak’s time there, some of its Gothic elements were returned to it. It has survived to this day in very good condition.
But now let’s return to Na Rybnicku street. Dvorak and his wife spent nearly four years there, an extremely prolific period in the context of the composer’s oeuvre overall. Here, Dvorak wrote three operas, his Piano Concerto in G minor, the Moravian Duets, a large number of chamber pieces, and also one of his most celebrated works, the Stabat mater. On a personal level, however, the years spent at Na Rybnicku were probably the most tragic of the composer’s life: Dvorak’s first three children were successively born here and also died here.
In the autumn of 1877 Dvorak moved again, this time to a permanent address. He chose house no. 10 (today 14) in nearby Zitna street. He probably made this choice since none of the other tenants owned a piano, which had disturbed him in his work at his previous accommodation. Dvorak spent more than 26 years of his life at 10 Zitna street until his death in May 1904 and a large portion of his compositional legacy was written here. He did move three more times within the same building, each time into a larger flat, as the number of children, and his income, increased. For the last 20 years or so the Dvoraks lived on the second floor, in the right wing of the building. As far as is known, only one photograph has survived of the interior of this flat, the composer’s study. Also rare is the photograph which captures Dvorak in the courtyard gallery of the house. This is one of the few informal photographs (not a studio photo) taken of him, and also one of the last (if not the last).

10 (14) Zitna street

AD in the courtyard gallery

Dvorak’s study
There were several Prague music institutions associated with Dvorak’s work, of which we should mention some of the theatres. We have already referred to the Provisional Theatre in connection with the composer’s engagement with the orchestra.
Later on, this theatre hosted the premieres of three of Dvorak’s operas (the second musical setting of King and Collier, Vanda and The Cunning Peasant). The theatre also had a summer venue, known as the New Czech Theatre, sometimes also simply called the “Arena”. This wooden building was situated on the corner of what is now Anglicka and Skretova streets, and performances here were only possible during the summer and autumn months, depending on the weather. Two of Dvorak’s operas had their premiere here (The Stubborn Lovers and Dimitrij), and also two orchestral works: Czech Suite and Scherzo capriccioso. All the composer’s other operas (The Jacobin, The Devil and Kate, Rusalka and Armida) were performed in the newly opened National Theatre.
New Czech Theatre

Prague was always in need of concert halls and, surprisingly, this situation hasn’t changed all that much even now. In Dvorak’s young days, the majority of orchestral concerts were held in Zofin palace on Slovansky ostrov [Slav Island] or at the Provisional Theatre; chamber concerts which didn’t require as much space were held in venues such as the Konvikt building, which we mentioned in connection with the organ school. The Rudolfinum only opened in 1885, and Municipal House was completed eight years after Dvorak’s death. Numerous concerts featuring new works by Dvorak, sometimes conducted by the composer himself, were held at Zofin. Arguably the most important of them was Dvorak’s first independent concert (17 November 1878), at which he introduced himself to the public not only as a composer, but also as a conductor. A number of his works were premiered here over the years (Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 8, the first and second Slavonic Rhapsodies, the Serenades in E major and D minor, Prague Waltzes, the Polka “For Prague Students”, Symphonic Variations).
Several of Dvorak’s opuses were premiered in the New Town Theatre which, in the years 1858–1885, used to stand roughly on the site of today’s State Opera. After the opening of the Neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum on what is now Jan Palach Square (namesti Jana Palacha), Prague concert life was focused there instead and, after the institution of the Czech Philharmonic in 1894 (inauguration in 1896), the significance of the building increased severalfold. The main concert hall, today the Dvorak Hall, is famous for its excellent acoustics, but evidently this wasn’t always the case. Dvorak himself initially refused to conduct in the Rudolfinum: “As far as a concert in the Rudolfinum is concerned, I must tell you that you’ll never get me in that cavern to conduct my works, and especially not “The Spectre’s Bride”. Anywhere else, but not there! I’m telling you, consider it carefully! Or are the acoustics better than they were before? I haven’t been to any concert there recently, so I can’t say whether they have made any improvements on that score.”
In time, the building really did see major improvements, a fact reflected in Dvorak’s several appearances as conductor in the Rudolfinum, including the Czech Philharmonic’s inaugural concert on 4 January 1896. Several of the composer’s works were premiered here: Violin Concerto in A minor, The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, Othello and Slavonic Dances Nos. 1, 2, and 7 from Op. 72.
From 1891 onwards Dvorak’s name was also associated with the most important music school in Prague, the Conservatoire. During the first ten years (with the exception of his time in the United States) he taught composition here and, in 1901, he was elected its artistic director. His pupils included major future composers, such as Josef Suk, Vitezslav Novak, Oskar Nedbal and many others. Shortly before Dvorak began teaching here the Conservatoire was institutionally linked with the organ school, where Dvorak also gave tuition in composition. The composer thus returned to the very locations where he had begun in Prague, now enjoying a very different status.

Emperor Franz Joseph station (period photo) 

church of St Ignatius

Many places in Prague featured prominently in Dvorak’s private life. During his regular early morning walks he not only visited the church and park on Karlovo namesti (see above), but he also walked to Emperor Franz Joseph Station (now the main station), where he would observe the arrival and departure of the trains, chat with the station staff and gain an insight into contemporary trends in rail transport.

Dvorak had several favourite coffee-houses where he liked to go to read newspapers and smoke the cigars his wife Anna preferred him not to smoke at home. Just opposite his flat in Zitna street was the Paris cafe, which he visited almost daily from the time he moved here. He was also seen frequenting the cafe U Karla IV [Charles IV] on the corner of Zitna street and Karlovo namesti, and back in the 1860s he began meeting up with his friend Karel Bendl at the Viennese cafe on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Na Prikope street (Koruna Palace stands on this site today), a favourite haunt of musicians, especially Bedrich Smetana. We know that, at least from the year 1890 onwards, Dvorak would frequent the restaurant known as “U Mahuliku” in Myslikova street, where the so-called Mahulik table society was founded, of which Dvorak was appointed patron on 1 June 1894 after his first return from the United States. Karel Bendl gave a toast to Dvorak, who responded in kind and, to mark the occasion, the “Foundation Charter of the Self-Styled Mahuliks” was signed by all those present (Dvorak and his wife, members of the Czech Quartet Karel Hoffmann, Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal and Hanus Wihan, composers Karel Bendl, Vitezslav Novak, Frantisek Picka, Bohumil Vendler and Eduard Tregler, conductor Moric Anger, and Dvorak’s old friend Alois Gobl from Sychrov, among others).

While, in general, Dvorak was not one for socialising on a regular basis, he was a frequent guest at the Friday soirees hosted in his flat by architect and patron Josef Hlavka at 736 Jungmannova street. These parties attracted the cultural elite of Prague at that time: Julius Zeyer, Jaroslav Vrchlicky, Josef Vaclav Myslbek, Josef Suk, the members of the Czech Quartet, and also Frantisek Ladislav Rieger. At these soirees Dvorak would play four-hand piano pieces with Zdenka Hlavkova.

Just as Prague had witnessed Dvorak’s international successes, his conducting appearances and celebrations of important landmarks in his life, the city also played its role upon his death. Antonin Dvorak died on 1 May 1904 in his flat on Zitna street and, a few days later, thousands of people paid their respects by taking part in a funeral procession in the streets of Prague. Dvorak is also buried in Prague, and his body lies in a tomb in Vysehrad cemetery, the traditional resting place of noteworthy figures.

Dvorak’s Prague addresses:

1. autumn 1857–1860 238 Dominikanska (today Husova) street
2. 1860 – end 1863 558 Karlovo namesti [Charles Square], house known as “Na kremenci”
3. end 1863 – 1864 327 Vaclavska street
4. 1864 – end 1865 1375 Senovazne namesti (today 19)
5. end 1865 – November 1873 558 Karlovo namesti, house known as “Na kremenci”
6. November 1873 – beg. 1874 1413/27 Na Florenci street
7. beg. 1874 – autumn 1877 1364/14 Na Rybnicku street
8. autumn 1877 – 1904 564/10 Zitna street (today 14; Dvorak moved
three times to different flats in the same house)


► map of Prague indicating sites associated with Antonin Dvorak