Today he is the most frequently played Czech composer. In the 1860s, however, Antonín Dvořák began as an unknown violist in the orchestra of the Prague Provisional Theatre, whose conductor at the time was Bedřich Smetana. Later he worked as an organist at the nearby St. Adalbert Church. He was composing, but it was only when Brahms recommended him to the Berlin publisher Simrock that the world started opening its doors to his published compositions. At the beginning there were Slavonic Dances. Over the next few years, Dvořák became an internationally renowned composer, held in the highest esteem.
In 1881, when he was already receiving a number of commissions for new works, the year in which the National Theater in Prague burned down, Dvořák worked on the opera Dimitrij. His Sixth Symphony was premiered in Prague in the spring of that year, and his opera The Stubborn Lovers, in the fall; his Gypsy Songs were presented in Vienna. Joseph Hellmesberger, Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, commissioned Dvořák to compose a string quartet for his chamber ensemble. It was to be performed in December that year, as announced in Viennese newspapers. In the fall Dvořák began to work on the composition in earnest, but when he finished the first movement in three days, he put it on the side. Apparently he was not satisfied, either because he thought there was not enough tension in the music or because he had doubts about the key. However, he soon began working on a new quartet, his eleventh, in the key of C major. He was so pressed for time that he worked on the opera in the mornings and the quartet in the afternoons. He finished the string quartet in November, on time, but unfortunately the premiere did not take place. On 8 December, a fire broke out at the 1700-seat Ringtheater, which had opened the previous decade as the Opéra comique, and hundreds of people died. Therefore giving a concert in Vienna at that time was unthinkable. The first performance of Dvořák’s new String Quartet in C major was therefore not given until a year later, when it was presented in Berlin by the Joachim Quartet. And the postponed Quartet Movement in F major, a curiosity of sorts, was not heard by the public until long after the composer’s death, in Prague in 1945, when it was played by the Ondříček Quartet on Czechoslovak Radio.
The fact that Dvořák’s music grows out of his national roots and is at the same time international is corroborated by his compositions written during his stay in America, where he was the director and a teacher of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. In the New World, Dvořák came to a courageous conclusion that the future music of America must be based on African-American songs. He said so in an interview with the New York Herald – and understandably attracted a great deal of attention, since slavery was not abolished in the United States until 1863 and racial segregation continued there until the mid-20th century. In Dvořák’s mature and masterful compositions of that time, there is a wistful undertone related to his homesickness and separation from his culture and family, but at the same time, to a certain extent, it is possible to hear stylized influences of North American music, whether African-American or Native American. These include Cello Concerto, the New World Symphony, of course, but also Biblical Songs and Suite in A major, Sonatina in G major for violin and piano, and String Quartet in F major.