Entertainment Music

Monday 21 May 2018

The Czech butcher's son who became a high-flyer

George Hamilton

There's been a lot of flying these past two weeks. While it was football that had me criss-crossing the airways of Europe, the music was never too far away.

The soothing strains of Antonín Dvorák's Czech Suite were welcoming passengers to their seats on the flight to Rome on Tuesday, an entirely appropriate choice - charming, soothing, relaxing. In other words, Romantic music at its finest.

Dvorák must have seemed an unlikely candidate for artistic greatness. Born in 1841, he came from a village to the north of Prague, on the Vltava river, made famous by the tone poem composed in its honour by his older contemporary, Bedrich Smetana.

His father was a butcher, and young Antonín was apprenticed to the trade himself.

Before that, he'd become besotted with trains. He was only nine when the railway came to his home place and he was absolutely fascinated by this new technology, a love affair that would last a lifetime.

But there was space for music, too. The elder Dvorák had a bar as well as his butcher's shop, and he was an accomplished zither player.

When Antonín showed an interest, he got all the encouragement he needed.

His parents moved him in with his aunt and uncle who lived in a small town where there were teachers to be found.

As soon as it became obvious that he had a talent, the family got him enrolled in a music school in Prague.

On graduating, he set about making a career out of his calling, playing wherever he could get a gig - the viola was his instrument - and augmenting his income by giving private lessons.

He fell for one of his students. She turned him down, and he ended up marrying her sister.

But life was a struggle for Antonín and his wife Anna, and there was to be tragedy before the clouds departed. Their first three children all died in infancy.

Ultimately, they had a family of six, and the world of music came to recognise an exceptional talent. How this came about is quite remarkable.

Vienna - its centre of excellence - still had a key role to play. The state put up a bursary to support struggling composers across the Austrian Empire.

The composer Johannes Brahms, at the height of his fame, sat on the jury that gave out the award.

The unknown Dvorák put forward no fewer than 15 works - two symphonies, other orchestral pieces, and a song cycle. Not only did he get the money, Brahms was so bowled over, he gave Dvorák a personal recommendation to his own publisher in Berlin - the way the music got out in the days before record labels.

Dvorák was on his way, backed by a German powerhouse.

The five-movement Czech Suite neatly encapsulates the musical philosophy of the composer.

It was a time when regional identities were pushing for recognition, acknowledgement beyond the strictures of an imperial regime.

The folk songs, the melodic rhythms of a distinct culture were the perfect way to express this.

In Antonín Dvorák - who railed against the Berlin publisher's tendency to Germanicise his first name as Anton - they had their champion.

If you only ever listen to one of Dvorák's works, make the Czech Suite your choice. Five movements, five Czech dances. Sweet melodies, subtle rhythms. It's all there.

Twenty-five minutes of sheer musical bliss, and just the ticket to soothe the furrowed brows as the aisle backs up and the bags refuse to stack up in the overloaded overhead lockers.

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

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