A little unlike many of history’s great composers, this innkeeper’s son from a rural Czechoslovakian village was not necessarily a child prodigy. While some biographers claim he became a butcher’s apprentice at his parents’ insistence, he nonetheless received modest training in organ, violin and viola which prepared him for his first job as a member of a dance orchestra in the capital city. In 1862, this ensemble formed the foundation for the newly created Prague Provisional Theater Orchestra, and during the next nine years as a member, Dvorak gained a broad exposure to the operatic works of Wagner, Verdi and Mozart. He also began work on some of his own first large scale compositions.
In his early thirties, Dvorak caught the attention of Brahms and his friend, the famous Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, with his entries in the annual Austrian state composition contests. Eventually, Brahms’ influence with his German publishers made possible the 1878 release of Dvorak’s first set of Slavonic Dances, whose broad appeal soon brought him international acclaim. For the next fifteen years, his fame and fortune would continue to rise through numerous commissions and conducting appearances throughout Europe, notably many in England.
He accepted a position as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in America (New York) in 1892, and thus began a fertile three-year period of creativity that produced his famous Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”), which premiered in the Spring of 1894. Dvorak spent the following summer in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where he finished his lesser known Suite in A Major, first written for solo piano and scored for orchestra in the following year.
Its five movements convey a wide range of moods, including hints of homesickness for his native Czechoslovakia in the folksy strains throughout the work; a loving embrace of the Native American and Afro-American idioms he was hearing anew on the prairie; and even a foreshadowing of the Humoresques he was to write a year later. Though Dvorak later felt his greatest contributions were to European opera, his American-period synthesis of dance rhythms, five-tone folk melodies, and tuneful phrasing had a profound influence on American music, right into the jazz age.