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interview with Antonin Dvorak, published in London Sunday Times, 10 May 1885

author: Paul Pry

More than one brief sketch of Antonín Dvorák's life has been written since his first visit to this country a year ago, but in no case have we had a complete history of the events that make up his singular and interesting career. It has been my good fortune to obtain from the famous Bohemian composer, during his present stay, a verbal account of those events, which I here translate as nearly as possible from his own words.

"I was born," said ‘Pann’ (Mr.) Dvorak," in 1841, at Mühlhausen, or, as we call it in Bohemia, Nelahozeves, a village four miles from the town of Pralup. My parents were poor. My father (who is still living) was a butcher, and as is often the case in our country, combined the occupation of innkeeper with his regular business. I helped him in both, for I learned as a boy to buy, kill, and cut up the sheep and oxen. At the same time I attended the village school, and there learned the violin and singing and the rudiments of music. Every child in Bohemia must study music. The law enacting this is old; it was once repealed, but is now in force again. Herein, I consider, lies one great secret of the natural talent for music in my country. Our national tunes and chorales come, as it were, from the very heart of the people, and beautiful things they are. I intend some day writing an oratorio into which I shall introduce some of these chorales. The Slavs all love music. They may work all day in the fields, but they are always singing, and the true musical spirit burns bright within them. How they love the dance, too! On Sunday, when church is over, they begin their music and dancing, and often keep it up without cessation till early in the following morning. Each village has its band of eight or ten musicians––I belonged to ours as soon as I could fiddle a little. It is supported by the dancers, who pay nothing to go in, but in the middle of their polka or waltz a couple is stopped by one of the musicians and not allowed to continue until they have paid as many kreutzers as they can afford. When all is over, the band divide their earnings, and mine, of course, used to be handed forthwith to my father.

"At the age of thirteen I went to live with my uncle at the village of Zlonic, near Schau. There I studied with the school-teacher and organist, Anton Liehmann, a good and clever musician. I should tell you that in Bohemia every school-teacher is bound to know sufficient music to give instruction in it. Well, I sang in the choir and began to learn the organ a little. I used to help to copy out the parts from the little scores that Liehmann wrote for the performances of the village band, and I remember how puzzled I got over the various keys in which the parts for wind-instruments were written. These things were not explained to me. I had to find out their meaning for myself. Once, I recollect, I determined to try my hand at a score myself. I wrote a polka for strings, 2 clarinets, 1 cornet, 2 horns, and 1 trombone. With great pride I carried it home to Mühlhausen and had it tried by our band there. How anxiously I waited for the opening chord! It was all right, bar the cornet part, which I had got quite in the wrong key. The mistake was soon remedied by transposition, but I leave you to guess its effect."

When did you first begin serious study?

"Not yet. However, while at my uncle's I went on acquiring musical knowledge after a fashion. When I was fifteen I began to learn the piano and counterpoint. As I have already told you, Liehmann was an excellent musician, but he left his pupils to find out a great deal for themselves. For instance, I had to teach myself entirely how to read a 'figured bass.' I can scarcely tell how I managed it, but after a little time, when I played the organ for services, I used to read whole Masses from old copies written with a 'figured bass.' Of course, they were not all such Masses as we gave on the yearly Church Festival, when works like Cherubini's D minor, Haydn's D minor, or Mozart's C major were performed. Ah! those yearly performances. They might excite a smile now, but how lovely I thought them then! Indeed, it was being ever in the midst of this musical element that developed the feeling within me and made me long to become a real musician.

"At last my father's friends persuaded him not to bring me up to business, but to send me to Prague to study there in right good earnest. In 1857 I went, and was lodged with some relatives, receiving from home for my 'keep' the scanty allowance of 8 florins [about 15s.] per month. I was placed at the Organists' College, then under Joseph Pitsch an institution where organists and conductors are instructed. Here my great difficulty at first was that I could scarcely speak a word of German, for, although a Bohemian institution, the professors were then compelled to speak German –– a rule which was simply scandalous. However, if I could not speak, I managed to show that I could do something, and in time I got on very well, especially after Pitsch died, and a remarkably clever musician named Krejci became head of the college. He was organist of a large church, and I was chosen with some of the best pupils to sing in the choir. Now it was that I first heard of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn as instrumental composers; previously, indeed, I had hardly known that the two last-named had existed. Still I learned no instrumentation at the college. The first real orchestral performance I ever heard––I shall never forget it––was a rehearsal at the Conservatoire, when I contrived somehow to slip in. The work performed was Beethoven's 'Choral' Symphony, and the conductor was Spohr."

How long did you remain at the College?

"Nearly three years. I left in 1860, when I was nineteen, and then came the important question, How to earn a living? First I tried what I could do as a fiddler, and got a place as viola-player in a band of eighteen or twenty, which played at various cafés and public places, doing the usual dances, potpourris, and overtures––among the last 'Maritana,' always a favourite. Well, by this I earned the huge sum of 22 florins (about two guineas) a month, then a little fortune to me; but I added to it by playing with our bandmaster in sextet performances at a lunatic asylum, where in time I became organist also. I had not much to spare for luxuries, and I longed, above all, to hear an opera. I remember one Sunday afternoon standing outside the theatre, when 'Der Freischütz' was announced. Only ten kreutzers (a few pence) to go in, and I hadn't the money. A companion came up and I asked him to lend me as much. He was as badly off as myself, but said he would run and fetch what I wanted. I waited and waited, but, alas! he did not come back, and ultimately I had to leave the spot, my eyes full of tears, without having seen 'Der Freischütz'. However I managed from time to time to hear a good concert. This I did by slipping into the orchestra and hiding myself behind the drums. I enjoyed myself, too, by spending most of my leisure hours in composing. In 1861 I wrote a quintet and quartet, both for strings, and to my intense delight succeeded in getting some friends to play them. They were pleased with the works, and so was Krejci, my old master, to whom I showed them. This encouraged me immensely.

"A year later an event of great importance to us happened in Prague–the opening of the new Bohemian Theatre, under the direction of Mayer. The band in which I played was engaged as the nucleus of an orchestra of 36, and I must leave you to imagine how we dance-music players got on during our opening season with such operas as Bellini's 'Montecchi e Capuletti' and 'Norma,' Rossini's 'Otello,' and Cherubini's 'Deux Journées.' But we were very proud of our national theatre, I can tell you, and now we are more so still. Whilst yet in the band I made the acquaintance of my friend Karl Bendl, who was well off and the possessor of a large quantity of scores, to which I had been unable up to that time to obtain access. He lent me some, among the first Beethoven’s septet and the quartets of Onslow. I studied them with avidity, constantly composing all the while, and gradually I began to get ideas on scoring and instrumentation. None but the friends who shared my apartments knew how much I wrote, tore up, and burnt. These good fellows laughed at me, of course, but still I persevered, until in 1871 I made up my mind to leave the theatre and try to get private lessons, in order to get more time for composition. In this object I succeeded. Two years afterwards came my first reward. It was then that I wrote the 'Patriotic Hymn,' which is to be performed in London next week. Given by the 'Hlahol Gesang-Verein of Prague,' and conducted by my friend Karl Bendl, it gained a great success, and gave me vast encouragement."

You have written some operas, I believe?

"Yes; one of my chief ambitions when I began to compose was to write an opera. My first attempt was one called 'König und Köhler.' The influence of Wagner was strongly shown in the harmony and orchestration. I had just heard 'Die Meistersinger,' and not long before Richard Wagner had himself been in Prague. I was perfectly crazy about him, and recollect following him as he walked along the streets to get a chance now and again of seeing the great little man's face. Well, my opera. The parts were copied out, and it was to be done at the theatre. The piano and choral rehearsals began. But with one assent all complained that the music was too difficult. It was infinitely worse than Wagner. It was original, clever, they said, but unsingable. Persuasion was useless; my opera was abandoned. In 1875 I took the score up again, destroyed it, and re-wrote the whole opera afresh. It was brought out and, being not only easy but national instead of Wagnerian, it had a genuine success.

"Meanwhile my position had been slightly improving; I had married, and had been appointed organist of the Adalbert Church, in Prague, a welcome if not very lucrative post. Later on, I was much assisted by the 'artists' stipend, a grant for one year at a time from the Government to artists whose works reveal talent and to whom assistance is of value. As examples I sent to Vienna my first symphony, in F, Op. 25 and my opera. The grant amounted to 400 florins. A year later I tried again and sent in my 'Stabat Mater' and a new grand opera 'Wanda;' but nothing resulted. At the third attempt I succeeded in getting 500 florins. Subsequently I tried once more, and sent in some vocal duets, a string quartet, some variations for piano, and the pianoforte concerto that was played this week by the Philharmonic society. I waited some months, and at last one day a letter came from the famous critic, Dr. Eduard Hanslick, informing me that the committee, consisting of Johannes Brahms, Herbeck, and himself had recommended a grant of 600 florins. My delight at receiving a letter from such a man as Hanslick was doubled on the receipt of one from Brahms, expressing deep interest in me and telling me that he had recommended Simrock, the well-known Berlin publisher, to print some of my compositions. Thus, by kind assistance on all hands, was I put on the road to the success for which I am so grateful. And let me not end without telling you how deeply I appreciate the welcome which the English people have given to myself and my works."