Profiles in Ambition: Antonín Dvořák
How one composer doggedly overcame disappointment, rejection, and heartbreak to create one of classical music's most enduring legacies
Over the weekend I saw a concerto by Antonín Dvořák performed by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra — booming, beautiful, triumphant music played by musicians with deeply inspiring precision.
I also learned that Dvořák himself was quite an inspirational character. Dvořák faced poverty, a series of bitter rejections, and unfathomable heartbreak, but overcame every setback and doggedly pursued his ambitions until earning his place as one of history’s most lauded composers. Here are some highlights from the famed composer’s ambition-igniting story.
Early Life & Encounters with Rejection
Antonín Leopold Dvořák was born in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic) in September 1841. Partially inspired by his father, a semi-professional zither player, Dvořák studied the organ, piano, and violin from an early age, showing great promise. A hardworking innkeeper and butcher by trade, his father encouraged his musical training but was skeptical of his son’s creative ambitions. But after being dragged into a lake by cattle, Dvořák eschewed the family business and dedicated himself to music.
Dvořák loved the viola, but at that time it was viewed as a filler instrument, making it impossible to make a living as a journeyman violist. He focused on the organ which promised more consistent work. Despite his talent, the young musician was rejected from a job as an organist at at St. Henry's Church for being too inexperienced. He was impoverished and had to share a flat in Prague with five roommates while sustaining himself as a piano instructor.
Dvořák’s true passion was composing. However, he was so poor that he struggled to afford paper on which to record his compositions. In the 1860s, Dvořák made his first attempts at composing symphonies, many of which he self-critically burned. He eventually landed a job with an orchestra in Prague, but abandoned it to pursue composing - this, at a time when he had yet to create a single successful piece of music. It wasn’t until 1871, after over a decade of songwriting, that one of his compositions was performed publicly.
In 1873 Dvořák married his wife Anna after courting and being rejected by her sister, Josefina. He continued to compose and submitted a score of his First Symphony to a prize competition in Germany, but didn’t win.
A year later, as a complete unknown, he applied for the Austrian State Prize for composition, submitting a veritable mountain of 15 compositions. He won and was awarded a stipend “to award financial support to talented composers in need.” He could not even afford his own piano at the time, so the reward was a great relief. Johannes Brahms, a member of the jury and a legendary composer in his own right, was thoroughly impressed by Dvořák’s work.
In 1875, Dvořák competed for the Austrian State Prize again, but did not win. But this did not deter him, and after winning in 1876, he finally felt comfortable to resign from his day job as an organist.
Heartbreak & Triumph
But all was not well in Dvořák’s household. One of his children died in infancy in 1875, and two more passed in 1877. Dvořák compensated by throwing himself into his music, beginning arguably his most productive creative period. That year he applied for and won the Austrian Prize again.
Brahms and his associates contacted Dvořák directly to not only to notify him of the outcome but express their desire to make his music more widely known (and, presumably, to tell him to stop applying so others could get the prize). The composer had his “big break” when Brahms recommended Dvořák’s music to his own music publisher. Dvořák's Moravian Duets were published widely and with commercial success. Brahms became a mentor to Dvořák, dedicating his scarce free time to provide advice and proofread his work. Toward the end of his life, Brahms told his mentee that "If you need anything, my fortune is at your disposal.”
Slowly but steadily, Dvořák’s prospects grew and his work reached farer and wider audiences. But his troubles continued when, in 1880, Dvořák was commissioned to compose a symphony for the Vienna Philharmonic only to discover that members of the orchestra refused to play it due to anti-Sczech sentiments. He didn’t let the slight deter him, and continued to publish music and cultivate his reputation.
Dvořák became a major player on the international music scene. Some of his major works premiered in England to critical acclaim. But despite his celebrity status, bad luck still plagued the composer. On one occasion, when Dvořák visited London to oversee a performance of his Piano Concerto at Crystal Palace, he was thrown out of the posh Athenaeum Club after mistaking it for a coffee house.
To help cultivate Russia’s burgeoning musical culture, in 1890 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky invited the Czech to conduct some of his own compositions, and Dvořák triumphed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The following year the University of Cambridge awarded Dvořák an honorary doctorate in music, and then he became a professor at the venerable Prague Conservatory.
Trip to the New World
In 1892 Dvořák was invited to New York to direct the National Conservatory of Music. He was compelled by an unimaginable salary of $15,000 (~25 times what he was paid in Prague and equivalent to ~$450,000 adjusted for inflation). In addition to enjoying his lavish pay, in New York he composed three of his most famous works: the String Quartet No.12, the Cello Concerto in B minor, and the 'New World' Symphony. Significantly, Dvořák welcomed black composers to the Conservatory, an unprecedented practice in that era. However, soon after assuming his directorship, a financial panic put the Conservatory in dire straits, and Dvořák’s salary was slashed and paid irregularly, if at all, until the fiscal depression resolved.
The End of an Era
Dvořák moved to Iowa and composed more groundbreaking work before homesickness drove him back to his native Bohemia. Under the weight of ever-rising expectations and almost unbearable pressure, the composer struggled with neurosis and agoraphobia. In 1904, at age 62, Dvořák fell ill, complaining of kidney pain, and died with a stack of half-completed works on his desk.
While the unpretentious melodist described himself as a “simple Czech musician,” Dvořák was a complex personality and a sophisticated, innovative composer. After the incalculable generosity of his own mentor, Dvořák paid it forward by nurturing young talent, launching the careers of Czech composers like Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal, and Vítězslav Novák, as well as mentoring Harry Burleigh, who became one of the first renowned black composers in America.
Dvořák was known as a man of strong mental disposition, great optimism, dogged determination, boundless creativity, and noble ambition, and in his massive wake leaves one of classical music’s most enduring legacies.
P.S. — Want more inspirational stories from creatives, entrepreneurs, and other peak performers? Click here or enter your email below to subscribe to the Bring Ambition Newsletter.