The Catholic Composer Who Gave Us More Than Music

COMMENTARY: Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), in addition to leaving his musical gift to posterity, also provides an example of unwavering Catholic faith in times of difficulty.

St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Spillville, Iowa, which dates to 1860, is the oldest Czech Catholic church in the United States. Inset: Antonín Dvořák in 1882.
St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Spillville, Iowa, which dates to 1860, is the oldest Czech Catholic church in the United States. Inset: Antonín Dvořák in 1882. (photo: Carol M. Highsmith / Church, courtesy of the Library of Congress; inset, public domain)

Antonín Leopold Dvořák was born on Sept. 8, 1841, in the village of Nelahozeves, near Prague. He was the first of 14 children and was baptized in the village church of St. Andrew. His Catholic faith remained strong throughout his life and was a continual inspiration for his music.

Few composers have a been so richly endowed with musical ability as Dvořák. He claimed that he studied “with the birds, flowers, trees, God and myself.” His music was recognized for its “heavenly naturalness.” The distinguished conductor, Hans Richter, referred to him as “a composer by the grace of God.”

Despite his impoverished circumstances (he did not own a piano until he married in 1873), Dvořák did receive some formal education in music. But his love for the lively folk music and simple church songs that marked his youth never left him. He won several prestigious prizes for his compositions and was championed by Johannes Brahms who was deeply impressed by them.

Dvořák’s fame began to spread, and in 1892 he was invited to serve as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He had come a long way from being a peasant who apprenticed as a butcher. The conservatory was founded by a wealthy philanthropist who wanted to make an advanced music education available to women and Blacks, an idea that was unusual for the times. Dvořák strongly supported the concept of African American and Native American music being the foundation for the growth of American music.

In 1893, the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write his Ninth Symphony. Its first performance was met with tumultuous applause. This monumental work, also referred to as the “New World Symphony,” was immediately seized upon by conductors and orchestras throughout the world. It is interesting to note that Neil Armstrong took a recording of this symphony to the moon during the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969.

At the persuasion of his secretary, Dvořák, together with his entire family, spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa — a largely Czech-speaking community of approximately 350 people, situated just below the southern border of Minnesota. 

Dvořák’s summer in Spillville was both happy and musically productive. He went to daily Mass at St. Wenceslaus Church where he played the organ, much to the delight of the other churchgoers. In a letter he wrote to his friends back home, the celebrated composer expressed the joy he felt during his stay: 

“I liked to be among these people and they all liked me as well, especially the elderly citizens, who were pleased when I played, ‘O God, we bow before Thee,’ or ‘A thousand times we greet Thee.’”

Dvořák  established a legacy in Spillville, where he provided a stimulus to music that has become an ongoing tradition. His name is remembered and revered.

His list of musical compositions is staggering: 13 operas, nine symphonies, five symphonic poems, 36 chamber works, 68 songs, choral works including Stabat Mater (which was inspired by the death of his daughter, Josefa, who died in infancy), Te Deum, his Mass in D Major, 10 biblical songs, two sets of Slavonic dances and many other works. Dvořák was hard on himself and burned several works that did not satisfy him. Few, if any, composers rival him in his natural feeling for melody, song and dance.

In addition to his musical gift to posterity, he also provides a personal example that should also be an inspiration: his unwavering Catholic faith in times of difficulty (his first three children died in infancy), his love and dedication to his wife and their nine children, his hard work, his love of nature and, despite his worldwide fame, his unfailing love for simplicity. (His favorite workplace, he tells us, was the kitchen, amid the domestic clatter of his large family.)

Antonin Dvořák died at 62 years of age in the year 1904. He left behind many unfinished works. The music he did finish, however, establishes him as one of the truly great composers in the Western tradition. But he has also bequeathed to the world an example of an extraordinary human being.