Antonín Dvořák (to avoid possible embarrassment, it's Dvor-zhak, not Dvor-rak) lived September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904. The most famous of Czech composers, Dvořák's musical idiom is infused with the traditions of his native Bohemia. In addition to this musical nationalism, Dvořák also exemplified many other characteristics of the late Romantic period, including writing for large orchestras, lush melody, and powerful, emotion climaxes. The influence of Brahms shows on Dvořák in that Dvořák declined to assign programs to his symphonies and often used classical forms. On the other hand, the Wagnerian influence also strongly manifests itself in Dvořák, especially in the tone poems and operas. Dvořák, a prolific composer, created works in almost all genres. These include 9 symphonies, a piano, cello and violin concerto, 10 operas, numerous religious works, several string quartets and other chamber works, and many attractive small scale pieces like the Slavonic Dances. These 16 short pieces based on Bohemian folk tunes helped launch Dvořák's career and were inspired by Brahms's similar Hungarian Dances.
By far the most popular of Dvořák's works is the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World." The heart-wrenchingly beautiful, utterly sublime, too magnificent for human ears "Largo" (Listen here) from this symphony has become a popular Standard Snippet. Dvořák wrote the symphony while staying in the United States, during which Dvořák studied and admired African American spirituals. Many scholars have argued that the exquisitely noble themes of the "Largo" are in fact based on spirituals, though Dvořák always denied this. Music from the exciting and powerful last movement of this symphony was later stolen by John Williams for use in Jaws. Ironically, its use in adverts by British bread manufacturer Hovis has led to be it being regarded as a leitmotif for Yorkshire in the UK.
Dvořák's other two popular symphonies are Symphony No. 7 in D minor of 1885, Op. 70 and Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88. The latter contains another one of Dvorak's lovely slow movements. All of Dvořák's symphonies are worth checking out, those the last three are the ones most often performed and recorded.
Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 is probably the greatest work for that instrument. Dvořák again wrote this work while in America. The Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33 and Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 are both excellent, attractive pieces, though not as distinguished as the truly divine cello concerto.
Of the 10 operas Dvořák wrote, only "Rusalka," Op.114, first performed in 1901, has found modern day success. Yet this one success yielded a truly dazzling opera, a work of sublime heartbreak and romance, with a tremendously sympathetic heroine and gorgeous music to match. In fact, "Rusalka" probably has a good claim to being the greatest opera of the 20th century, composed as it was in the first months of the new century, while the fires of Romanticism still burned, and before various hateful ideologies strangled the life out of classical music by dictating that anything that was beautiful was reactionary and that the most random and hideous music was artful. Essentially, "Rusalka" is a Slavic version of The Little Mermaid, where our heroine Rusalka is a Czech water sprite who lives in a lake instead of an ocean (there being no oceans in Bohemia, of course). Fans of the Disney movie will recognize the basic outlines of the story. Falling in love with a human prince, Rusalka wishes to become human, and goes to the Witch in order to do so. As in the movie, Rusalka must give up her voice, and this being an opera we know this is a rather terrible thing to do. The Prince quickly becomes disenchanted with the mute Rusalka, falling instead in love with the evil, manipulative Foreign Princess. This being an opera, there is no happy ending. Betrayed, Rusalka returns to her lake. The Prince arrives. He and Rusalka sing a ravishing love duet, at the end of which they kiss. The Prince dies, and Rusalka returns to the lake, a vengeful spirit of death. This tragic denouement has always seemed to be much more in line with the general direction of the story, a tale of innocence destroyed, than the happy ending grafted on by Disney. It goes without saying that Dvorak's music is superior, though the Disney score does have many merits.
The opera shows the influence of Richard Wagner regarding subject, themes, and music. Dvorak employed a story from his national mythology, and likewise focused on overwhelming passionate love and betrayal ending in orgasmic death. Musically, the opera shows Wagner's influence in using leitmotifs, evocative nature portraits, and sensual love duets. The most famous music from the opera is Rusalka's "Song to the Moon." You can listen to the lovely Renee Fleming sing it here. This aria is featured in the movie Driving Miss Daisy.
Dvorak's music has an immediately attractive, deep soulful quality that has made him one of the most popular composers. One of the last composers of the Romantic era, he contributed immeasurably to the world's treasure of music. Dvorak's salient feature, the characteristic that makes him beloved today, was his magical talent for creating very many very beautiful melodies. Perhaps only Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky can be said to equal Dvorak in this respect.