Dvorak in Love
This novel, translated from the Czech, presents a fictionalized account of the life of Antoine Dvorak, the Czech composer, from his early career in Prague to his death in 1904 at age 62.
Dvorak began as a violin player in the orchestra of Prague’s National Theatre. A few years later he began teaching music to the two young Cermahova girls, Josephine and Anna. He fell in love with Josephine and composed Four Songs, dedicated to her and celebrating the power of love and its futility.
Love steals upon us like a dream of beauty, grace, and light. And dreamlike, slides away too soon….
This unfulfilled love strongly affected his life and influenced his art. Josephine chose (by flipping a coin) to marry a wealthy count, and Dvorak, after this rejection, allowed himself to be seduced by Anna. Anna, although portrayed rather unsympathetically as stern and humourless, nevertheless provided Dvorak with the shrewd business acumen which he lacked, and was a devoted wife and mother. She was, perhaps, a necessary evil in the life of the impractical Dvorak, not just because of her pragmatic qualities, but also because of her real understanding of his music. They were both devoted parents who put their children’s interests first.
Nevertheless, his early love for Josephine is the key to understanding much of his music, in particular the B-Minor Cello Concerto, which incorporates the melody of one of the songs he had dedicated to her. This concerto was written after Josephine’s early death and Dvorak insisted on having it performed exactly as he had written it. This refusal to permit any change was the cause of a quarrel with his good friend, the cellist Hanus Wiban. Hanus wanted to substitute a candenza which he had written for the paraphrase of Dvorak’s melody in the conclusion of the allegro. The result of the quarrel was Hanus’s refusal to perform the concerto. The world premiere was given by Leo Stern instead.
In 1892 Dvorak was persuaded by Jeannette Thurber to go to the United States as Director of the National Conservatory in New York. While in the U.S., Dvorak composed Eight Humoresques, and his Symphony No. 5 in E. Minor: From the New World. The latter incorporates many American melodies and themes, from Stephen Foster to negro spirituals. Dvorak is shown to be a person of catholic tastes with an appreciation of folk music. The analysis of his music is, of course, best appreciated by someone who is familiar with his symphonies and knowledgeable about music composition.
The novel is narrated from the points of view of many different people who knew Dvorak, and the author employs frequent shifts in both perspective and time. Although Dvorak is shown to be a man with a zest for living, and although there is humour in various incidents, the unifying note is one of sadness.
No balm is theme, no sweet relief, for this poor smitten heart;
For love denied is sad despair, And fortune’s cruelest dart.
Joseph Skvorecky is a professor of English at Erindale College, University of Toronto. He and his wife, the novelist Zdena Salinarova, operate a Czech language publishing house, 68 Publishers. Skvorecky was the 1980 winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and was nominated in 1982 for the Nobel Prize.
Dvorak in Love is translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.