During the nineteenth-century Czech National Revival, it was the symphonic poem and opera that dominated musical proceedings. The former, with its programmatic clout, and the latter’s ability to embrace politics and pomp made for nimble agents in the nation’s search for its soul. Bedrich Smetana and Anton.n Dvorak, its prime musical movers and shakers, dedicated their lives to these totemic art forms, while the string quartet trailed quietly behind. Intimate and domesticated, its four-way dialogue was seemingly not for the national stage. But as Dvorak and later Smetana demonstrated, their music was not always about the grand gesture.
These two composers are now inextricably linked, but during the latter part of the 19th century, Smetana and the younger Dvorak were considered total opposites. Smetana was the progressive figure, embracing Liszt and Wagner’s musical innovations and making them apparently indigenous. He was supported by a loyal band of followers called the mladoceši [young Czechs]. Dvorak, on the other hand, was seen as conservative, aligned with the staroceši [old Czechs]. His success in neighbouring German-speaking territories and his friendship with Brahms likewise did him few favours back at home.
To the outside world, such infighting was irrelevant and Dvorak was as much the quintessence of the Czech sound as Smetana. And it was in that spirit that Jeannette Thurber, the president of the National Conservatory of Music in America, invited Dvorak to New York in June 1891. Dvorak’s Slovansk. tance [Slavonic Dances] had done incredibly well in America and by offering him a new post at the Conservatory, Thurber hoped to provide not only a famous musician for her students but also one renowned for embracing a national style. It was just what was needed, Thurber felt, having always wanted America to have a musical idiom of its own. A generous salary secured Dvorak’s services in December 1891 and he arrived in New York on 26 September 1892.