Standard histories of Antonín Dvořák's life have largely ignored his output in the field of the symphonic poem, especially his final work in the genre, Píseň bohatýrská (Heroic Song). Composed in 1897 after four other tone poems explicitly based on poems by the Czech writer and ethnographer Karel Jaromír Erben, this piece features a much more abstract program and depicts the life, travails, and ultimate victory of a Slavonic bardic hero, assumed by many to be the composer himself. It premiered in late 1898 and early 1899 in Vienna and Prague, respectively, inviting mostly favorable reviews and performances in many other European cities before sliding into obscurity after the turn of the twentieth century. I situate Píseň bohatýrská in both the context of Dvořák's larger output and the critical discourses of the late nineteenth century, using it as a focal point to examine not only Dvořák's mythologized image as a composer at the fin de siècle, but the history of the symphonic poem, the politics of the Vienna-Prague critical axis, and the hardening of critical orthodoxy in the twentieth century. Through an in-depth study of Píseň bohatýrská's reception, I reveal a picture of Dvořák at once familiar and unfamiliar: as the naive, spontaneously creative absolute musician at odds, in the eyes of the critics, with the unfamiliar territory of the symphonic poem, and as a specifically Czech musician who was nevertheless placed in the same masculinized, Germanocentric composer-hero lineage of genius as Beethoven and Liszt. Nevertheless, the understanding of Dvořák as absolute Czech musician par excellence ultimately triumphed, weathering the assaults of his program music to survive into the present. This article provides a new understanding of the complexity of Dvořák's image near the end of his life, inviting a reconsideration of the composer.
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