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"From Butcher to Baton"
interview with Antonin Dvorak, published in London Pall Mall Gazette, 13 October 1886
To-day sees for the English musical world the beginning of the great event of the present season, the Leeds Festival, which hundreds of performers and thousands of music-lovers have been anticipating. Among the great musicians who will take part in the festival is Herr Dvorak, the well-known Bohemian composer, who has come to this country to conduct the first performance of his new oratorio, "St. Ludmilla," published by Messrs. Novello and Co. The name of Dvorak as a composer has been familiar to the British public ever since his "Stabat Mater" was for the first time performed at Birmingham, and since his minor compositions, characteristic as they are of the man in their ever-varying originality and vivacity, their wild enthusiasm and spontaneity, have charmed and pleased; but of the man, apart from the composer, little enough is known. Through the kindness of Messrs. Novello and Co. an interview between a representative of this paper and Herr Dvorak was arranged, and it was at Mr. Littleton's charming villa at Sydenham, which is becoming famous as a resort of distinguished musicians, that Herr Dvorak gave the following interesting account of his past life and career.
Pan [Mr.] Antonin Dvorak is a man of middle age, whose Slavonic extraction is apparent in every feature of his face. He is of somewhat above middle height, very dark, and cheerful and lively in his conversation, which he accompanies with intense gesticulations:
"You want me to tell you something about myself," said Herr Dvorak to our representative, "and my work and career? First of all, then, let me tell you that I am the son of a butcher and innkeeper, which two occupations generally go together with us in Bohemia. I was born in 1841 in a small village called Nelahozeves, near Prague, where I spent my childhood. When about ten years old I began to play the violin, without any instructions or without even the most elementary knowledge of music. It is the custom in my country that children, when they are about eleven or twelve years old, are sent to a German-speaking town or village, where they learn to speak German; while German parents send their children into the Czech village to learn our language, for it is impossible to get on in Bohemia without either of the two. The village to which I was sent was called Zlonic, and it was there where I received my first instruction in pianoforte playing. It was not much, but it enabled me on returning home to play my fiddle among the bands of musicians who play in the streets and public-houses. This I did for a long time, till the time came for me to choose whether I would be a butcher or a musician; and, though my parents were very poor, I decided to leave butchering alone and devote myself to music. Prospects I had none whatever; I knew my notes and that was all; but I kept to my colleagues, playing valses and polkas for a few kreutzers all the evening, sometimes, when there was a village fair or other festivity, till the next morning. One day it struck me that I might compose a new dance and accordingly I sat down and wrote and wrote till it was finished, when, with great satisfaction, I went to my colleagues, and the performance of my first compositon took place. The results were disastrous, for, innocent of any idea that the music ought to be written differently for different instruments, I gave the same sheet to one and all, and, oh, heavens! the shrieking discord! For some time I did not offer any more of my productions to the public, but I puzzled and puzzled for the reason for the failure of my work. Meanwhile the time came when I ought to have become a soldier, which, however, never came to pass, because I was not strong enough.
"My father, seeing that I really had some talent, now sent me to Prague, and it was then that I heard the names of any great composer for the first time. At Prague I also went to the opera for the first time in my life, and listened to Weber's Freischutz from the gallery. My daily work was still to play in a band, sometimes in a soldier's uniform when the occasion was particularly grand. I made now enough money to hire a piano by the month, and I gave a few lessons in piano playing, using all my spare time to write enormous volumes of original compositions, all of which I have now long ago destroyed. I was still puzzling over the secret of the unsuccess of my first composition, but light was dawning, and I began to see. So the years went by. In '73 I was married, and still I was nothing but a poor, obscure musician. Then in '74 I went in for a competition for a musical scholarship at Vienna, and my manuscript gained £40. Next year I tried again, and got £50; the year after £60; but the 'Stabat Mater' which I sent was not even noticed, and beyond sending the prize to me, nobody took any further notice. At home in my own circles I was by this time pretty well known as the composer of a Bohemian Patriotic Hymn, but not till '78 had my name been heard in the musical world as a composer. At that time my Moravian duets were published at Berlin by the well-known firm of Simrock, and there appeared in the feuilleton of the National Zeitung an account of them, written by Professor Ehlert, the ablest critic in Germany at the time, which not only brought me a good deal of money, but after a day or two a multitude of letters from publishers in all parts of Germany and Austria, asking me to write for them. Since then I have been working on; my dances, songs, and symphonies have found a public, and among my larger works the 'Stabat Mater' and the 'Konig und Kohler' are perhaps the most popular."
Now, Herr Dvorak, to come back to your own work. If it is not an indiscreet question, I should like to ask you how you compose?
With a good-natured smile and a humorous twinkle in his eyes, Herr Dvorak said: "That is rather a difficult question to answer. When I was young, I composed very quickly indeed; I had a real fury for writing, and I cared not what they were like as long as I could only get my ideas on paper. In time, however, I have learned to be more careful, and at present, after I get a new idea, I try to get it clear in my own mind before I write anything at all. I play it over twenty, thirty, nay, a hundred times, till I have got exactly what I want. After that the writing does not take long, and what has been in my mind for some months is on paper in about a week or even less."
And your new oratorio, is it the first time that it will be performed at Leeds, and what is the subject of it?
"Yes, it has never been performed before. The subject is a poem by a young Bohemian poet, Yaroslav Vrchlickry, who, though not yet thirty years old, is already an eminent man, whom at home they have called a second Byron. The subject is the conversion of the Bohemians to Christianity by one Ivan, who caused Ludmilla to become a Christian, while she, in her turn, persuaded her countrymen to adopt the new faith."
And what is your opinion of the English as a musical nation? Are they so utterly devoid of a sense for music as is generally assumed?
"Of this I am only an imperfect judge, but so far as my experience of English audiences goes I can only say that people who had not a good deal of love for music in them would hardly sit for four hours closely following an oratorio from beginning to end, and evidently enjoy doing it. As to their being good musicians, I judge them by the orchestras who have played my compositions under my own direction, and it has struck me every time. With regard to music it is with the English as it is with the Slavs in politics--they are young, very young, but there is great hope for the future. Twenty years ago we Slavs were nothing; now we feel our national life once more awakening, and who knows but that the glorious times may come back which five centuries ago were ours, when all Europe looked up to the powerful Czechs, the Slavs, the Bohemians, to whom I, too, belong, and to whom I am proud to belong."
The words of the magnificent chorus at the end of "St. Ludmilla"-
"Thou that rulest all creation,
- came into my mind as the torrent of eloquent patriotism burst forth, and I took leave of the man who by his music has done much to bring the "true Bohemian land" once more into honour.