Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Recruiting New Students

Good morning everybody: I'm asking for your help!  I have 4 hour-long lesson slots to fill and am looking for new students.  If you have a friend or colleague or family member that has been interested in learning to play the mandolin, violin or guitar, please tell them about me!  As an incentive, I'll barter a month of free lessons for every referral!

The following weekly slots are available:
  • Wednesdays 7-8pm
  • Fridays 5-6pm, 6-7pm, 7-8pm
I also have mornings open for retired people: 9am-noon Tuesday through Friday.

Also, I'm running a sale between now and Christmas on everything: strings, shoulder rests, rosin, bows, mando mo instruments...let me know when I see you if there's anything you need.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Following the Source of Horse Tail Hair for Making Bows

I've been sourcing horse tail hair for bows since the late 1990s.  I bought it from suppliers in Canada, Argentina and Siberia.  The Siberian suppliers sold through an agent in England named Michael T. Sowden.  In 1998, the Canadian tail hair supply started to dry up and the quality of the Argentinian hair became worse and worse.  I realized I needed to find a new source of tail hair.  In 1999, I heard from a member of the Violin Society of America that his bow hair supplier bought hair from China.  This was the first I'd heard about China being a source.  I decided to check it out for myself.  I tracked down one of the companies through my contact, through an interpreter found the auction house where he bid on lots of tails.  From them, I discovered where the tails originated from.  Some were ironically from Argentina, others were from slaughterhouses on the border between northeast China and Mongolia.  I got the name of one of the largest organizations and tracked down their address.  My first trip to China was to Harbin in August of 1999.  I'd never been to China and didn't speak the language...it was quite an adventure just getting there.  I got a ticket via Korean Air to Seoul, changed planes and flew to Shenyang, China.  From there, I took a train northeast to Harbin.  For a white guy traveling alone, it was a harrowing experience, but I found people along the way who were very helpful once they found out what I was doing.

I got to the slaughterhouse and was given a tour.  This was before digital pictures and unfortunately my camera did not survive the journey, but it's probably good.  The experience was horrific and I do not want to repeat it here.  I still have nightmares.  Suffice it to say the animals come from farms in Mongolia and Siberia.  They come across the border by train to the slaughterhouse, where they are unloaded and left in holding stalls until they can be processed.  The animals with the longest tails are separated from those with shorter tails.  After the animals are processed, the tails are separated from the bodies, but the hair is still attached to the bone of the tail.  They are rinsed with cold water and left to dry out on the courtyard of the slaughterhouse.  When dry, they are stuffed into huge burlap bags and loaded onto pallets.  Each bag is marked with a tag indicating (in Chinese) the source of the tails, the color, length and a few other things.

The bags are loaded onto freight trains.  I was able to take the same train as the tails back to Shenyang.  I found out where the tails were going (to Anping), and got the address of the auction house.  I bought a plane ticket after a night in a hotel to the closest airport and arranged to be picked up at the airport and driven there.  My source was a gentleman with a lot of music experience in China.  He started out as a young man selling pianos, but eventually got into the violin and bow business.  He spoke broken English but was very friendly and helpful.  He drove me to the bow hair supplier there and put me up in a local hotel.  I'll include pictures (below) of the experience in Anping.

The courtyard of the workshop was interesting.  It was flagged with small round stones.  The buildings on each side had beautiful murals of wild horses.  There were two orange three-wheeled delivery trucks parked to one side.  I was led into the main building where we sat on benches around a table.  I was given a cup of hot water.  My contact and I chatted with the manager, a young man in his 30s.  He of course was interested in the quantity of tail hair I would be purchasing.  I was confident of the amount, but wanted to learn of the quality of his hair.

The Manager took me out to the courtyard, to a grey concrete basin on one said.  He explained that they wash the tails with a mild detergent here. 

Then we went into a low building with cardboard-covered pallets on the floor.  The tails are dried here, turning them often. 

We then went into a workshop.  Inside was a flurry of activity.  On the right were two men working with bundles of black tail hair.  They were tying off the hair with white string and boxing it up for shipment.  I was told this hair was going to a brush factory in England. 

On the left in back were two men working with hand-fulls of hair.  They would throw these bunches over large metal upright combs I later learned were called "hackles".  The combs would straighten the hair.  They set the straightened hair to one side in back of them. 

A middle aged woman wearing an apron was strapping slats around bunches of hair, making what appeared to be a barrel.  She put the barrel between her knees. She then took a butter knife in her right hand and pulled several strands of hair out of the barrel and placed it in her left hand.  She did this swiftly and repeatedly until she had a fistful of hair.  She then tied a piece of string around it and laid it down to her side.  Once she was done, she barreled up the "drawn" hair a second time, and pulled it through.  She did this one more time with the hair.  The manager told me that this process eliminated short hairs and a lot of bad hair. 

After doing this a total of 3 times, she went on to the next batch while another man took the drawn hair and brought it to another building where women were sitting at tables.  This room had a lot of light.  The women each had a bundle of hair on a white piece of butcher paper on the table in front.  They were going through the bundle strand by strand and inspecting each hair!  Amazing I thought.  Any hair that was bent, twisted, discolored, curled, tapered or not right would be set aside.  The poor quality hair would be used in furniture (mattresses, cushions. I was told they sold some to Honda and Mercedes for seat cushions).  Each bundle would be looked over by at least two of the women.  When they were deemed of good quality, they were placed in a tray and taken to a final setting where a man would make sure the ends were even and tie them up for packaging.  It was a lengthy process, but these people were very skilled.

After the visit to the workshop and tour of the facility, we went back to the Manager's office, where I talked about quantities, quality and pricing.  I said I would place an order when I got back to the US.  The Manager invited my contact and I out to dinner at his house that night.  After a rest at the hotel, I was picked up by some dour looking men in the lobby and driven to the Manager's house.  He lived in a sad looking building that looked like a shack.  It had a tin roof and adobe walls.  I had to duck my head when I went in.  We were met by the Manager's young wife.  She was very pretty.  She invited us in and took our coats.  Dinner was in a side room near a kitchen.  There was a big round dais in the middle of the table, and everybody was drinking beer from little glasses.  Each course was toasted with words by one of the men.  There were no women present.  "Gumbeh!"

More Pictures:

I rehair bows!

Bow Rehairing
I use the finest quality unbleached white "stallion" Siberian horse tail hair that has been triple drawn and visually sorted.

Here's how it works:

1.  pack your bow in a bow box and then use a shipping tube from FedEx or USPS to box it up safely.

2.  text me at 1-413-561-2275 that your bow is on its way and PayPal.me/sweetmusic the amount ($99)  Make sure you list your shipping address and cell# in the PayPal comments box so I know where to return the bow.  Make sure you include the return shipping amount and method ($15 for USPS, $55 for FedEx)

3.  choose the type of hair you want on your bow (white, mixed, black), and the thickness of the hair (180 hairs is the normal amount for a violin bow, not too thick).

4.  give me 48 hours to rehair your bow.  Returning it to you depends on the service you pay for.  USPS is the cheapest and slowest, FedEx is the most expensive and most reliable.

5.  profit!

How Horse Tail Hair Is Processed For Bows

Adapted from article in ©Strings Magazine. January/February 1995.

Though questions about the origins of “cat-gut” rarely come up in these days of synthetic strings, it is not uncommon for a customer to wonder about the history of the “horsehair” used for bows: Is it really hair? Does it really come from horses, and if so, what kind? What color should it be? And can anything definitive be said about its so-called “grab” or “bite”?

The answers to the first few questions are fairly simple. Though there is such a thing as “synthetic” hair on the market (we don’t recommend it, by the way), most bows are strung with actual hair from horses’ tails. Bow rehairers can choose from Siberian, Mongolian, Manchurian, Polish, and more recently, Argentinian horsehair; according to Joan Balter, a bow maker and repairer in Berkeley, California, stallion hair from Siberia is generally considered the best.

For various reasons, the kind of horsehair used makes a difference in the quality of the final product. Horsehair from animals in northern climates tends to be stronger, which Balter explains is nature’s response to coping with more frigid temperatures. The gender of the horse is also important; stallion hair is preferred because it is generally cleaner than that of mares, which tends to get hit with more urine spray.

Other factors that affect quality are consistency and color. Both players and bow makers value straight hair. “Hairs with irregular structures will cause weird, scratchy sounds,” says Balter. “It’s like hitting a pothole in your car.” Many bow rehairers prefer a white hair, particularly for violins and violas, because hair of this color is usually finer in texture. (There is, however, some disagreement about the extent to which color correlates with textural differences that affect sound.) Many bass and some cello players use the coarser black hair, which some say is “grabbier,” while others opt for a salt and pepper combination.

Slaughterhouse Horses
Horsehair is collected and processed in specific ways. Although some Chinese hair is cut from live animals, most hanks of horsehair are slaughterhouse by products, gathered from animals that have been killed for their meat, hide, and hooves. The hair is first cleaned with a mild soap or very mild detergent, then “dressed” for use in numerous products (which include baskets and brushes, to name a few items; bow hair comprises a relatively minor part of the horsehair industry as a whole). “Dressing” the hair involves gathering it up to make sure all of the hairs are approximately the same length; those that are too long or short are picked out, and the ends are evened up. At the same time, dressers check the hairs for straightness, strength, and consistency. Much of what constitutes high-quality hair depends on how it is dealt with at this stage. Hairs that are too short won’t fit into a standard bow, hairs with split ends will snap, and irregularities in the hair shaft can affect sound, so dressers must be selective.

Combing Hair
Despite the fact that horsehair has generally been dressed once or twice before it comes into a bow maker’s shop, many makers and repairers like to do a third round themselves, depending on exactly what they’re looking for. According to Steven Beckley, a bow maker and supplier of luthiers’ products in Los Altos, California, “It’s a very individual thing, whether a rehairer does another round of dressing. It goes anywhere from people cutting a hank of hair off a bundle and putting it in your bow, to people redressing by about 30 percent.”

At the stage when bow makers start working with their clients, an entirely new set of considerations comes into play. “We start to talk about ‘bite’,” says Beckley. “This is a wonderfully subjective thing that’s tough to quantify. I think people’s perceptions of horsehair come from some drawings from the turn of the century, which have little arms and fingers coming out of horsehairs, grabbing onto your strings. When you actually see photos of magnified hair, there aren’t barbs at all. I think bite comes from the hair’s ability to hold rosin.

Paul Guhn, bowmaker
“After a rehair, one person will call me and say, ‘This is great hair, it has wonderful bite,’ while another will ask, ‘What do you have that’s better? This stuff is just too slick.’ Along with the individual interpretation of what’s going on, how people treat the hair is important. If it has too much oil, I don’t think it’s going to accept rosin well. If it doesn’t have any oil, it’s going to be like dry, damaged hair. So some of the myths about rehairing come from the fact that one player is wiping down hair and putting on rosin in a way that it holds, and another isn’t.”

Joan Balter says that there are a few things that players, especially beginners, should understand about bow hair. “Often students wait too long to get a rehair,” she says. “When you break a lot of hairs on the playing side, you should get the bow rehaired or it will warp, because all of the pressure is on one side and it pulls the bow around. That can cause permanent damage.” Balter also stresses that dirt and oil are rosin’s worst enemies, so to make a bow rehair last, players should keep the hair clean and refrain from touching it with dirty hands.

Unbleached White
Lynn Hannings, a Maine-based bow maker, believes that the amount of hair really needed in a bow can be deceptive. “Players think that the more hair you have in there, the better. But the best possible sound comes from the smallest amounts of hair. Other-wise, you’re deadening the sound with layers and layers of hair.” Hanning emphasizes that for the student and professional alike, regular rehairs are an especially good idea for players living in a harsh climate. “The length of bow hair I would use for winter is much different than a rehair I do for summer. For winter I size it long, giving it the opportunity to shrink without doing damage to the stick. In spring I do the opposite, sizing on the short size, because I know that it’s going to be hot and muggy before too long, which will stretch the hair out.”

For further questions about caring for bow hair, feel free to contact me any time.

You may ask for a price list by filling out the contact form on the sidebar, or by calling or texting 413-561-2275 any time.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

What's New?

One of my favorite topics is the subject of musical instruments.   As some of you know, my father is a luthier.  He has built over a dozen cellos, four violins and several violas.  I am not a luthier, but I have spent many a happy hour in his shop watching him work.  I attended the Violin School at UNH in 2000 and learned how bows are rehaired and repaired.  I have been to just about every violin shop in the United States and Quebec, Canada selling horse tail hair.  If you'd like to learn more about that experience, I wrote a blog post about it.  You can use the search feature on the sidebar to locate it.  If I remember, I might link to it here.  In addition to violin shops, I've been to every shop that sells mandolins and know many of the mandolin makers by name.  There's nothing I like better than sitting down in a mandolin or violin shop with a newly constructed instrument and chatting with the maker about it.  I will be making my annual "pilgrimage" to see some customers in the spring.  I'll head up north first to Vermont, Montreal, Maine, then down to the Boston area (there aren't many violin shops and no mandolin shops in New Hampshire - go figure).  From there, I'll head south through CT to New York.  Lots to see in the Poughkeepsie/Hudson Valley area.  I'll do the Island first, then head into the city.  New Jersey, then south to Maryland with shops in Baltimore, Virginia.  Lots of Bluegrass in that area!  I'll catch PA and northern NY on my return trip.  Next it's Tennessee with a few days stop in Nashville of course.  If you've got a shop in the North East and would like to see any of the products listed on my Shop page, please let me know and I'll make an effort to swing by.

Mando Mo Strings
A few years ago, one of my students, a gentleman named Al*, mentioned to me that he had been making mandolins.  One thing led to another, and soon I found myself checking out all of the instruments he made.  There's the Bull Dog, a gorgeous F5 style "bluegrass" mandolin with a traditional Tobacco finish (here's a video), the Tortoise, another F5 style mandolin with beautiful tortoise-shell binding (video), the Terrier, a beautiful natural-finish F5 mandolin and one of my personal favorites (video) and the Red Fox, a lovely Celtic-style mandolin in mahogany and spruce (video).  There's also the Doberman, an A-style Bluegrass mando (video), the Golden Eagle and the Blood Hound (video).  He also makes a couple different flat-back teardrop Celtic mandolins he calls "the Pup" (video), a couple ukes and a couple guitars.  He asked me and I agreed to help him get these instruments to market.  I set up a website for him and a Facebook page and made the videos you see above.  In return for my efforts, he has made me the exclusive dealer of his products!  I am honored, to say the least.  I will list everything he has for sale with full descriptions, pictures and pricing on my Shop page, so you can check out the line there.  PLEASE NOTE: the prices mentioned in the videos are subject to change and do not include shipping, handling, setup or taxes.

Bow Hair
In the meantime, I just received a new batch of fresh triple-drawn visually sorted unbleached white horse tail hair.  It goes by the 1/2 kilo (1.1 pound) and costs $330 a bundle plus shipping and tax.  I take PayPal or cash in person at my house in Granby.  You can contact me to let me know how much you want to order.  Each bundle is about 32" in length. I also have black and coarse.  Please ask.

*Here's a video I made when Al came by to visit me in the summer of  '18

Antonín Dvořák

Dvorak’s ancestors settled in Central Bohemia in the region around Kralupy nad Vltavou, north-west of the Bohemian capital, Prague. The region is home to the village of Nelahozeves, where the composer’s grandparents lived from the year 1818.

Antonin Dvorak (in full Antonin Leopold Dvorak) was born here on 8 September 1841 to Anna and Frantisek Dvorak, as the first of nine children. The family ran a business in house number 12, a cottage that had an inn on the ground floor. A fire broke out here in the summer of 1842 and the future composer was rescued by his father who carried him out to safety. All of Antonin’s predecessors were butchers or innkeepers, thus it was automatically assumed that the first-born child would inherit the business. In addition to the butcher’s trade the Dvorak family line cultivated another talent: a flair for music. However, music-making was merely regarded as a means to brighten up the daily routine and as a way to earn a little on the side. But it wasn’t long before everyone realised things would be different in Antonin’s case.

In music he far surpassed everyone else, so his father entrusted him to the care of Nelahozeves school teacher and musician Josef Spitz, in order that he develop his son’s skills further. Young Dvorak soon mastered the violin and entertained guests at village dances, and it wasn’t long before he gave his first solo appearance as a violinist in the local church serving the nearby village of Veprek. Even so, during his childhood, Dvorak was still expected to help his father with the family business and prepare to take it over one day. His apprenticeship involved visits to local markets in the neighbourhood, where father and son would select livestock. He later described an incident from his young days where he led a head of wild cattle home from the village fair on a rope, whereupon the animal dragged him into a lake. At the time he is said to have vowed in a flood of tears that he was never going to be a butcher.  

It was also during this period that Dvorak first set eyes on the trains that would fascinate him his whole life. When he was nine years old he witnessed the construction of the railway which passed through Nelahozeves. The first steam train, a crowning achievement in technological progress at the time, passed through the village in the summer of 1851. It was probably these impressions from his childhood which ignited his future passion for everything associated with modern transport. 

At around the same time, Dvorak’s father Frantisek was having trouble with his business and almost went bankrupt. In the hope that he would fare better in a larger community, he decided to move the entire family to the nearby town of Zlonice, where their relatives lived.

Thus, in 1853, at the age of twelve, Antonin found himself under the supervision of Zlonice teacher and multi-instrumentalist Antonin Liehmann. Liehmann, an excellent musician in the vicinity, soon recognised an exceptional talent in young Dvorak and so he began to instruct him in the basics of harmony and organ-playing; later he also allowed Dvorak to play the instrument at Mass. It was during this time that Dvorak wrote his first compositions, short polkas. Since he invested much more of his time learning music than anything else, he began to fall behind with his German, a subject that would be essential to him as a future tradesman. So his father decided to send him to Ceska Kamenice (the majority of whose inhabitants spoke German) to spend a year living in a German-speaking family. Here Dvorak not only improved his German, but he also continued his music after making the acquaintance of the local regenschori, Franz Hanke, who permitted him to play the organ in the local church during Mass. Dvorak never did learn the butcher’s trade, since Liehmann finally managed to convince his father Frantisek that his son’s extraordinary talent deserved the consistent supervision and instruction that only a music institution could provide. Thus, in the autumn of 1857, 16-year-old Dvorak moved to Prague.

The decision had been made to send Dvorak to the Prague organ school which, unlike the Conservatoire, also provided tuition in composition. In addition, here instruction lasted only two years, whereas the course at the Conservatoire required pupils to study for six years. The Institute for Church Music, as the school was officially known, was located in Konviktska street in the Old Town and provided instruction in harmony, counterpoint and the rudiments of composition. The school did not have much in the way of facilities: it comprised three very basic classrooms within a dilapidated former Jesuit college, and the pupils only had one inferior organ at their disposal. These failings, however, were compensated for by the excellent teaching staff who were able to provide their students with solid foundations in music theory and practice. Alongside his studies at the organ school young Dvorak also attended a German school whose fourth year he completed in 1858. Not long after starting his education in the city he became a member of the Cecilian Association Orchestra, where he not only acquired valuable experience as an orchestral viola player, but he also began to familiarise himself with 19th century music.

He graduated from the organ school in July 1859 with a public concert, at which he performed a Bach prelude and fugue and also two of his own works – Prelude in D major and Fugue in G minor. These are some of the first pieces by Dvorak to survive as autographs.

Young Dvorak was extremely short of money during the early stages of his career. For many years – until he got married – he lived with relatives and in rented rooms at various Prague addresses: Initially in his cousin’s flat in Dominikanska (today Husova) street, later with his father’s youngest sister on Karlovo namesti, for about a year in Vaclavska street, and during this time he also had lodgings for one or two years on Senovazne namesti. When he left the organ school he was not yet eighteen years of age and could no longer expect any financial support from his parents, particularly since his father’s business continued to deteriorate. He thus applied for the position of organist at St Henry’s church. He proved to be the best of the six candidates, but he was not accepted due to his lack of experience. Roughly during this same period he decided to accept the post of viola player in the Komzak Ensemble, a small orchestra which performed undemanding programmes at dances, in restaurants and at promenade concerts.

When the Provisional Theatre opened in the autumn of 1862 the entire Komzak Ensemble was engaged as the core of the opera orchestra. Thus, for the next nine years or so, Dvorak performed the viola parts of operas by Verdi, Meyerbeer, Donizetti and others on a daily basis, often conducted by Bedrich Smetana. Nevertheless, this influx of music did not suffice and he studied a huge number of scores at home as well. His meagre income would not allow him to purchase any music, and so he generally borrowed scores from his friend, the composer and choirmaster Karel Bendl, whose flat he frequently visited in order to play on the piano.  

String Quintet, Op. 1 While Dvorak was engaged in detailed study of works by the great masters, he was already writing his own music. He probably wrote a large number of works during this time, none of which were performed; he was extremely self-critical and destroyed the majority of his scores. The first work he thought well enough of to assign it an opus number, thus officially embarking on his career as a composer, was String Quintet in A minor from 1861 (Dvorak was nineteen at the time); this was followed by String Quartet in A major, Op. 2. It wasn’t long before he tried his hand at a major musical form, producing his First symphony in the key of C minor with the subtitle “The Bells of Zlonice”, after which he immediately set about writing his extensive Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, which he completed within a mere two months. In the meantime he even managed to write his Cello Concerto in A major for a colleague in the orchestra – all this in cramped conditions living in a single rented room which he shared with several other lodgers. 

Dvorak’s pupil and son-in-law Josef Suk later reported – perhaps based on what the composer himself had said – that, around the year 1865, he had fallen for the charms of a young actress from the Provisional Theatre, Josefina Cermakova. His acquaintance with her was in a certain sense a defining moment in his personal life from that point on, since he later married her younger sister Anna (Mozart and Haydn experienced something similar). Not only did Dvorak and Josefina Cermakova work in the same theatre, but the composer also encountered her during his visits to the Cermak family, whom he taught the piano on a regular basis. Dvorak expressed his love for the actress in a cycle of love songs entitled Cypresses, a musical setting of a collection of poems by Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky. Josefina later married Count Vaclav Kounic but Dvorak maintained his affections for her and remained close friends with both of them his whole life. Dvorak returned to Cypresses on many occasions thereafter; its melodies feature in a number of the composer’s later works.

Dvorak’s engagement in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra provided him with a wealth of inspiration via the numerous opportunities to perform various world operatic works and as yet isolated examples of Czech opera (chiefly Bedrich Smetana’s Brandenburgers in Bohemia, Dalibor and The Bartered Bride), which probably played a major role in his decision to try his hand, after chamber and symphonic works, at writing opera as well.

As a completely unknown composer without any means he could not afford to commission a new libretto, and so he used an earlier text, Alfred der Grosse, penned by the Neo-Romantic German poet Karl Theodor Korner. Dvorak’s first opera Alfred was never performed during his lifetime. He soon began work on his second opera, King and Collier, which upon completion he then offered to the Provisional Theatre. After several rehearsals, however, the score was returned to him as unplayable, in response to which Dvorak rewrote the entire opera to the same text. The second musical setting was now regarded as feasible, and Dvorak was able to present himself in public as an opera composer for the first time. The decisive factor in sealing the composer’s reputation on home soil, however, was the extraordinary success of the performance in March 1873 of the Hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain”, set to a text by Vitezslav Halek. With this work the hitherto anonymous violist in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra established himself as an original composer with a promising future whose success on this occasion motivated him to continue his composition work. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reviews of the Hymn he then turned out one work after another: Symphonies No. 3 in E flat major and No. 4 in D minor, three string quartets, the one-act comic opera The Stubborn Lovers and a number of other pieces, some of which did not survive. 

While Dvorak’s career as a composer was flourishing, major changes were also occurring in his private life as well. He continued teaching the piano in the Cermak family home and began to form a close relationship with Josefina’s younger sister Anna. Anna Cermakova shared his love of music (Anna played the piano and she was regarded as a fine singer, occasionally performing her husband’s works later on) and the pair were married on 17 November 1873 in the church of St Peter; Dvorak was thirty-two and Anna thirteen years his junior. According to the laws of the time, Anna had not yet reached maturity by the date of the marriage, however, she was in her fourth month of pregnancy. The newly-weds initially lived with Anna’s mother Klotilda Cermakova but, after a few months, they moved to a modest flat in Na Rybnicku street. There Anna gave birth to her first-born son Otakar in April 1874, and it wasn’t long before the arrival of daughters Josefa and Ruzena. The family had very little money, and their friends even arranged a collection for them. Anna contributed to the meagre household budget with the occasional fee earned from singing in Prague churches, both in the choir and as a soloist. At this time Dvorak decided to accept the post of organist at St Adalbert’s church, where he remained for three years. The family’s chief source of funding, however, was still income earned from private tuition.

The situation changed at the beginning of 1875. Dvorak decided to apply for a state scholarship awarded each year to young impoverished artists who demonstrated exceptional talent. In addition to a document confirming his lack of means which Dvorak requested from the Prague municipal authorities, he enclosed his application for the scholarship together with the scores of his last two symphonies and other works, and sent all these together to the Ministry of Culture and Education in Vienna, which allocated the scholarships. He was awarded the highest possible grant of 400 gulden, which represented a fortune for the young family. Dvorak was also successful in subsequent years, winning the award five years in a row. The jury who decided which applicants would receive scholarships – from Dvorak’s second application onwards – also included Johannes Brahms, by then a noted figure. He had a great appreciation for Dvorak from the beginning and they later became lifelong friends. On Brahms’s recommendation, Dvorak also began having his works published by one of the most important German publishers, Fritz Simrock. The fees Dvorak received were initially very low, however, they gradually increased as the composer became more prominent. 

The following stage in Dvorak’s career was extremely productive; not only did the state scholarship enable him to focus much more on his composition work, but his contact with the major German publisher paved the way for important connections outside the country. None of this came a moment too soon: despite the huge number of works he had already written, Dvorak, now past the age of thirty, was still an unknown entity in the eyes of the public at large. In terms of his subsequent career as a composer, the most important works to come out of this period were his Moravian Duets, which attracted the attention of the critics, for the most part in German-speaking territories. Apart from the duets, Dvorak turned out a whole series of other pieces, including the popular Serenade for Strings in E major, the Piano Quartet in D major and Fifth Symphony in F major. 

After this joyful period in Dvorak’s career which saw him extremely focused on his composition work, however, he suffered an unexpected blow. After the death of his daughter Josefa, who died two days after birth, his one-year-old daughter Ruzena died under tragic circumstances (phosphorus poisoning) in August 1877; and, one month later, his son Otakar, then three-and-a-half years old, succumbed to smallpox. Within a short period Dvorak had lost all three of his children. After the death of the first child he wrote the piano version of what would become one of his most celebrated works: Stabat mater. With the loss of another two children Dvorak returned once more to the text of the mediaeval Latin sequence describing the Virgin Mary’s suffering as she witnesses the Crucifixion of her Son; this was now the definitive orchestral version. The oratorio Stabat mater contributed significantly to the composer’s international celebrity in years to come.

In order to try to forget the recent tragic events as quickly as possible and probably also because of their neighbours, whose piano playing disturbed the composer in his work, the Dvoraks moved from Na Rybnicku street to a new address, Zitna 10 (today 14), which became their permanent home. The following three years (c. 1878 – 1880) are known as Dvorak’s Slavic period, characterised by a strong leaning towards the roots of Slav folk music and, at the same time, representing some of the composer’s most productive years. Music flavoured with Slavic colour and nuances was sought-after both in the Czech environment (given the patriotic fervour of the time), and beyond the country’s borders (for its attractive “exoticism”).

Dvorak produced a large number of works during a relatively short space of time, among them, further Moravian Duets, the Serenade for Wind Instruments in D minor, the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, a series of piano pieces, String Quartet No. 10, “Slavonic”, Czech Suite, Gypsy Songs (Gypsy Melodies), and also the first series of the famous Slavonic Dances. These were followed by Symphony No. 6 in D major, which conductor Vaclav Talich later described as a work “pulsating with the blood of the Czech Lands”.  

At the beginning of the 1880s Dvorak’s music found its way to a country traditionally host to all manner of musical geniuses and one of the most important music centres – England. From the time of Handel, the country had cultivated a strong tradition in the performance of oratorios and cantatas and, once discerning London audiences had been introduced to the Stabat mater, the die was cast.

Dvorak was invited to London, a visit which proved crucial for his entire subsequent career. Interest in his music continued to grow, English music institutions and festivals began to commission specific works, and hence the majority of the composer’s journeys across the Channel involved the premiere performance of a new work. This particularly concerned Symphony No. 7, written for London, the oratorio Saint Ludmila commissioned for the festival in Leeds, and the cantata The Spectre’s Bride and Requiem for the Birmingham festival. Dvorak travelled to the British Isles a total of nine times and each visit was a triumph both for the composer and for Czech music. His connections with England culminated in the conferral of an honorary degree from Cambridge University in June 1891.

Together with the recognition he was enjoying in European music circles (in addition to England, Dvorak’s works were also being performed in Vienna, Budapest, Leipzig, Berlin, and elsewhere), things were going extremely well in his private life as well. During the years 1878-1888 Dvorak and his wife had a succession of six healthy children who all survived into adulthood. Soon after the birth of their daughter Anna, the whole family was invited by Josefina Kounicova to visit her chateau in Vysoka near Pribram (Vysoka u Pribrami) which she had received as a wedding gift from her husband, Count Vaclav Kounic. Dvorak was so enchanted by Vysoka that he decided to purchase from his brother-in-law an old farm building with a garden at the other end of the village; this he had reconstructed into a house with several floors, after his death known as “Villa Rusalka”. For the next twenty years the family spent their summers here and Dvorak wrote a large number of his works in Vysoka, many of which are among his most famous compositions.

Apart from the compositions written for England, a number of works appeared between the individual tours, such as a further series of Slavonic Dances, Piano Quintet in A major, the Mass in D major “The Luzany Mass”, and also The Jacobin which, after Rusalka, became Dvorak’s most performed opera. In 1888 Prague was visited on two occasions by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. On the first occasion he conducted concerts of his own works hosted by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda; he came over for a second time to present the European premiere of his new opera, Eugene Onegin. During his visits he also met up with Dvorak and invited him to perform in Russia, a tour to Moscow and St Petersburg which was organised for March of 1890. The concerts were very well received by the public, however, the critics surprisingly claimed that Dvorak lacked invention.

In 1891 Dvorak received an offer which would have fundamental consequences for his life and work: an invitation to the United States of America. The enterprising president of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, Jeanette Thurber, decided to raise the prestige of the school by offering the post of director to a leading figure in European music circles. The Czech maestro was chosen for this role. After much hesitation the composer finally signed a contract which obliged him to head the music institution and teach composition, and this for a salary that was thirty times higher than the amount the Prague Conservatoire was able to offer. 

At the beginning of the school year 1892/93 Dvorak sailed across the ocean to America where, apart from one break, he spent two and a half years. As soon as he arrived he assumed his obligations and began acquainting himself with his new, unfamiliar environment. It wasn’t long before he brought all his feelings and impressions together in his legendary work: in January 1893 he started sketches for his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, subtitled “From the New World”. In the summer Dvorak and his family travelled for their holidays to the village of Spillville in the state of Iowa, where descendants of Czech emigrants live to this day. Here the composer felt quite at home. In a joyful frame of mind, within just a few days, he penned the sun-filled String Quartet No. 12 in F major, entitled “American”, which was immediately followed by String Quintet No. 3 in E flat major, works of unusual melodic invention. After his return to New York, he continued his teaching and also witnessed the triumphant premiere of the New World Symphony, which took place in Carnegie Hall on 16 December 1893. The composer felt that he needed to spend the following summer holidays in his homeland, in Vysoka. During this summer intermezzo he wrote a cycle of eight Humoresques for the piano. The seventh, in G flat major, immediately travelled the world in countless arrangements – some better than others – and became one of the most famous classical music hits. During the school year 1893/94 Dvorak created his most intimate work, Biblical Songs, written to the text of David’s Book of Psalms. In the last year of his stay in the United States the composer produced his celebrated Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, which he completed after his return to Bohemia. 

Upon his return from the United States, Dvorak resumed his teaching at the Prague Conservatoire, passing on his experience to future leading Czech composers Oskar Nedbal, Vitezslav Novak and Josef Suk, who married Dvorak’s oldest daughter Otilie a few years later. 1896 was an important year for Czech culture with the institution of a new orchestra which in subsequent years would become the most famous orchestra in the country: the Czech Philharmonic. As the most prominent living Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak was asked to conduct a programme of his own works at the orchestra’s inaugural concert.

In the latter part of his career Dvorak’s music betrayed a shift towards an expression of profound folk wisdom, towards the realm of myths and fairy tales. He first wrote four symphonic poems inspired by texts from the collection Bouquet by Karel Jaromir Erben, beginning with The Water Goblin, then The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel and finally The Wild Dove. If we discount his vocal works, this collection is one of the composer’s few contributions to the programme music genre. Dvorak’s musical legacy concluded with three stage works. The first is the comic opera (arguably the composer’s most original) The Devil and Kate. After this came the composer’s most frequently performed opera, the lyrical Rusalka, whose premiere in 1901 was a pure triumph and assured him his rightful place in the opera repertoire as well (until now he had been regarded chiefly as an author of symphonic and chamber music). The very last work Dvorak wrote is the opera Armida, set in the exotic environment of the Orient. The premiere in March 1904 did not go as the composer would have wished, mostly due to shoddy preparation work on the part of the company. Dvorak’s frustration at the careless staging of the opera was compounded by health problems. With the onset of acute kidney pain he was forced to leave the theatre during the performance. 

The renal colic Dvorak was suffering was complicated by a chill and then influenza, and his doctor prescribed bed rest. In the morning of 1 May he felt a little better, well enough to want to join his family for Sunday lunch. After having some soup, however, he felt ill and soon lost consciousness. The doctor was summoned immediately, but could only confirm that the composer had died; a stroke was cited as the official cause of death. A modern medical diagnosis, however, would probably have shown the cause of death to be pulmonary embolism, which the patient would have suffered after a prolonged period of bed rest.

History has shown us numerous examples where the circumstances surrounding the final days of major figures assumed monumental, almost theatrical proportions, and where words uttered on their deathbeds might conceivably have been carved in stone (Socrates and Beethoven, among others). In the case of Antonin Dvorak, the exact opposite is true. He died as he had lived, without pathos and ostentation. His last words, “I feel a bit dizzy, I think I’ll go and lie down”, certainly won’t rank among the world’s immortal quotations. But Dvorak’s music will accompany humanity to its final days.

Les Poules huppées

CRESTED HENS, THE (Les Poules huppées). French, Bourrée à 3 temps (3/8 time). E Dorian. Standard tuning (fiddle). Composed in 1983 by French...