A global success

Ever since audiences in Britain and Germany discovered Dvořák in the early 1880s he has played an important part on the world’s musical stage. But in our own century, his reputation has tended to rest on a relatively small part of his output. In many ways, 19th-century audiences in Britain knew a broader range of Dvořák's work than we do today. The great choral compositions – the Stabat Mater, The Spectre’s Bride, St Ludmila, the Requiem – were performed and appreciated widely.

Yet perhaps most curiously is the way in which, after his death in 1904, this most famous of Czechs suffered a downturn in reputation in his native land. Led by an unsavoury demagogue called Zdeněk Nejedlý, a squad of critics set out to undermine Dvořák's achievement, claiming his work was not truly Czech and lacked the virtue of reflection, qualities they found in Smetana. Nejedlý pursued his campaign with all the advantages of high office in the Communist government from 1948; only since the Velvet Revolution have the Czechs more thoroughly re-examined the status of their greatest composers.

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• Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts Dvorák's Stabat Mater

The operatic Dvořák

In his later years, Dvořák thought of himself primarily as an opera composer, and, this image deserves consideration. Until the Fifties, English translations of Czech operas were rare. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride acted as a trail-blazer, followed by a Janáček revival. Now it’s surely Dvořák's turn: while his early works suffer from poor libretti, The Devil and Kate, The Peasant a Rogue, Rusalka, Dimitrij and The Jacobin, once staged, rarely take off. The exquisite fairy-tale opera, Rusalka, became something of a favourite in David Pountney’s beautifully eerie production at the London Coliseum in the Eighties, and more recently asserted its popularity at Glyndebourne.

One reason Dvořák has been neglected may be due to a lack of the sensational in his life: his steady career and happy marriage were unlikely to project him into the big league inhabited by the monsters and the nervous wrecks of Romantic art. His early musical education in the schoolrooms and organ lofts of Nelahozeves, the hamlet near Prague where he was born, and Zlonice and Kamenice, where he later studied, probably differed little from that of his distinguished eighteenth-century predecessors. The solid virtues of figured bass and a rigorous approach to harmony and counterpoint – reinforced by two years at the Prague Organ School – provided Dvořák with a firm foundation for a lifetime of composition.

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His early career

Despite the conventional aspects of this musical background and education, Dvořák's early compositions were marked by a strong experimental tendency. None but his closest friends were aware that he was composing during the 1860s. His income derived mainly from playing viola in the Prague Provisional Theatre Orchestra and giving music lessons. But this did not prevent him writing two symphonies, a cello concerto (not the famous one, but a lyrical work in A major) and a flurry of chamber works. The key composition from this time, however, is the song cycle Cypresses. These 18 songs are remarkable – the fifth song looking far beyond the Prague of the 1860s to a melodic and harmonic language more familiar from Janáček and Debussy.

The climax of this experimental phase came with the E Minor String Quartet (c1868-1869), a work of amazing originality which marks the young composer as a musical revolutionary. Cast in a single 40-minute span, Dvořák pushed romantic tonality to its limits, some 30 years before Schoenberg outraged the grey-beards of Vienna with Verklärte Nacht. In the early 1870s, Dvořák's more extreme empirical tendencies began to wane, but not before he had exercised them (in 1871) in the splendidly rich first version of The King and the Charcoal Burner and the majestic sweep of the Third Symphony in E flat major (1873).

But through the 1870s, thoughts of studying with Liszt gave way to a more Classical approach to form and the more moderate influence of Brahms. Dvořák had also settled down to family life, marrying Anna Čermáková in November 1873. His music from the mid-1870s is also touched by a more obviously national accent. The melodies in the pastoral Fifth Symphony of 1875 have a freshness and symmetry that show this new influence. The works that clinched this tendency, and also guaranteed the growth of his European reputation, were the first set of Slavonic Dances of 1878.

For home consumption in the 1880s Dvořák wrote Dimitrij (1882) and The Jacobin (1888). Foreign commissions resulted in what is usually thought of as his finest symphony, the Seventh, and a handful of choral works. Alongside this, Dvořák found the time to write a series of chamber works including the popular A major Piano Quintet, Op. 81, another set of Slavonic Dances, songs and piano music. Had it not been for his trip to America, his string of popular works, to which the Eighth Symphony was added in 1889, would have maintained his place in everyone’s affections. But more popularity was to come.

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A whole New World

Dvořák went to New York in September 1892 in order to become director of the National Conservatory of Music. While much of his time was taken up with teaching, he also found time to compose. The allure of the New World Symphony is not hard to fathom: the clarity of outline and a string of hummably memorable themes have commended the work to audiences from the premiere to the present day.

• Vassily Primakov on Dvorák's fiendish Piano Concerto

• Alisa Weilerstein plays the Dvorák Cello Concerto

There is a new pungency and vitality to this and the other great ‘New World’ works, the American Quartet, the E flat String Quintet, the great Cello Concerto and the Biblical Songs. The only cause for regret is that these works have somewhat overshadowed so much else in his output, not least the operas, and the rewards and challenges of his early music.

Words by Jan Smaczny