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Antonín Dvořák - the man behind the music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904) the Czech Composer.

Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904) the Czech Composer.

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Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904) the Czech Composer.

Returning from exile as World War II was ending, the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš declared Prague the only undamaged city in central Europe.

The ebb and flow of history over the centuries had left the capital more or less unscathed. Between 1939 and 1945, despite immense loss of life, the physical fabric of Prague was spared the scale of destruction wrought by air raids elsewhere.

Today, the city is picture-postcard perfect, the world's biggest castle on its hilltop above the Charles Bridge affording a spectacular view over the Gothic towers and the terracotta rooftops across the river.

Down there, just a 15-minute stroll from Wenceslas Square, you'll come to the baroque Villa America, home to a museum dedicated to the most famous Czech man of music, Antonín Dvořák.

He was born in a village not far from Prague in 1841, very much the country boy. His people were butchers, who ran a pub on the side.

Antonín was the eldest of nine, and it would have been assumed that he would follow in his father's footsteps.

But he'd also inherited a musical gene, and it was obvious from an early stage that he had the talent to take this further.

A multi-instrumentalist by the time he finished his studies in Prague at the age of 18, he got himself a job playing the viola in a small orchestra. There was no way he was going back to the butcher's shop.

But he never lost sight of his roots. Alongside the regular displays charting the course of a career that blossomed, the Dvořák museum puts on regular exhibitions.

This year, it spotlights his love of the outdoors. He was a dedicated hiker, an enthusiastic gardener, and he kept pigeons.

A quick glance through his catalogue shows just how much the natural world influenced his work - From the Bohemian Forest and Silent Woods, a series of string quartets called Cypresses, a concert overture entitled In Nature's Realm.

He wrote plenty for the big stage - nine wonderful symphonies, and opera too. The symphonies, and the Slavonic Dances he presented, all allude to his love of his home place.

His crowning triumph, the 9th Symphony, From The New World, inspired by the melodies and the rhythms of the United States where he headed a New York music school for three years, comes over as an orchestral version of home thoughts from abroad. No surprise that the vocal version is entitled Goin' Home.

It was the offer of a contract worth $15,000 - well over $400,000 in today's money - that made the decision to go a no-brainer, but the composer remained a man of simple tastes.

Last year's special display at the museum highlighted The Guilty Pleasures of Antonín Dvořák.

He liked a drink. He was a confirmed smoker - cigarettes, cigars, and a pipe, which his wife Anna insisted he only smoke in the garden, or at the pub.

Again, out of respect for Anna's wishes, he restricted his smoking at home to his study. There must have been a constant fug in there!

His pipes, his cigar cases were all on show, alongside packs of cards - he loved to play.

And there were cookery books too, featuring his favourite Czech recipes. The way to Dvořák's heart was through a plate of beef with saffron sauce and a bowl of plum dumplings.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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