Dvořák's hauntingly beautiful fairy tale Rusalka is onstage at Lyric now in its Chicago premiere. But did you know that the famed Czech composer, perhaps best known for his New World Symphony, had a Chicago connection?


Dvořák's hauntingly beautiful fairy tale Rusalka is onstage at Lyric now in its Chicago premiere. But did you know that the famed Czech composer, perhaps best known for his New World Symphony, had a Chicago connection?

Chicago burned to the ground in 1871 and a little more than two decades later, Chicagoans invited the world to party in the reconstructed city (forever after referred to as "The Second City" since the first one had burned). The steel-frame skyscraper had made its debut here in 1884 (Home Insurance Building) and by 1893 Chicago was indeed the City of the Century, with tall buildings, wide boulevards, and a population that embraced all forms of human progress. Chicagoans were rightfully proud of their rapid ashes-to-modernity trek and they threw a party to be remembered - the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.   

On August 12 of that year, Antonín Dvořák conducted a "Bohemian Day" concert at the fair. It was one of the Exposition's many "Honor Day" celebrations. The idea was for different ethnic groups to showcase their arts and culture, and one of the most prominent of Chicago's many ethnic populations was the Czechs (or Bohemians, as they referred to themselves then).    

Dvořák had left his professorship at the Prague Conservatory in 1892 and moved to the U.S. to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. His annual salary there was $15,000, which was 25 times what he made in Prague. He was also promised summers off and his teaching duties had him instructing only the most talented of the conservatory's students.  

In 1893 he and his family had taken a train from New York west to the Czech-speaking town of Spillville, Iowa, where they spent the summer. Some of Dvořák's cousins had emigrated there. On their way to Spillville, the Dvořáks stopped in Chicago for a day at the fair. They returned in August for more than a week when Dvořák rehearsed and performed his Eighth Symphony with the Exposition Orchestra - the Chicago Orchestra (the name later changed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), which was augmented to 114 players. The concert was a phenomenal success with one of the most famous living musicians of the European classical tradition conducting his own works right here in the Windy City.  

Dvořák loved America but was deeply homesick. In 1895 he and his family left New York and returned to their homeland. Dvořák resumed his professorship at the Prague Conservatory and spent the remaining years of his life writing operas and chamber music. He finished composing Rusalka, the most frequently performed of his many stage works, in 1900. It did not receive its premiere at New York's Metropolitan Opera until 1993.

Dvořák died of a stroke in 1904 but his presence can still be felt in Chicago. In 1907 the city created Dvořák Park at 1119 West Cullerton, and a public elementary school (now the Dvořák Technology Academy) was later named in his honor.