Antonin Dvorak’s Relationship with Johannes Brahms

Every composer has a beginning and time where they are relatively unknown. This was the case for Antonin Dvorak, who ended up being both a European and American influencer in music. Up until his thirties, Dvorak, who was born and raised in a small Czech town, was relatively unknown in musical circles. In 1877, however, Johannes Brahms recommended one of Dvorak’s works to his own publisher.1
The piece was one from the grants Dvorak had applied for, which were focused on helping poorer composers get their start as composers. Remarkably, Antonin Dvorak clearly benefited indirectly from the grants he received.

Below is Dvorak’s response to hearing about Brahms’ recommendation.2
The letter is very thankful throughout, as one would think Dvorak might be at this time in his life. This letter, in fact, is the beginning of a relationship between two great composers, as Brahms continued to help Dvorak find his voice and eventually become the Dvorak that is well known in Europe and the US, and likely other parts of the world. This letter is remarkable to have been kept considering its historical significance. If not for this relationship, Dvorak’s music might not have impacted American music to the extent that it did. 

Commentary on this letter contextualizes it well, but that can also be a lazy excuse to not read this letter critically and follow a primary source reading guide. While the pages surrounding this letter talk much about Dvorak’s and Brahms’ relationship, they don’t mention American music, which Dvorak later came to know and influence. Many books and articles mention that Dvorak’s New World Symphony transformed American music, but a certain New York Times article debunks this theory.3
While Dvorak’s symphony surely had its influence, this article especially discredits the idea that Dvorak was the first to say that American music would have its unique characteristic in African American melodies. While there are many other details on composers who pioneered this view before Dvorak, a singular message can be taken away by the reader: the way music developed was not due to one person, but rather through a complicated journey. It just so happens that Brahms’ recommendation of Dvorak to his publisher was one piece of a large puzzle of the slow transformation of American music.

1. Beverage, David R., “antonin Dvorak”, Dvorak American Heritage Association,,to%20texts%20of%20Moravian%20folk

2.  Geiringer, Karl. “On Brahms and His Circle.” Harmonie Park Press, 2006, p. 351. 

3 Shadle, Douglas W., “Did Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony Transform American Music?” 14 December 2018. The New York Times

Dvorak and Brahms: the relationship that helped launch Dvorak into international spotlight

Antonin Dvorak is perhaps one of the most well known composers to ever live. There are many stories about Dvorak’s time in America, but another topic worth noting is his rise to fame that would eventually lead to his time in America. Although his works themselves proved his merit as a composer, Dvorak was boosted into the spotlight with the help of Johannes Brahms. Although they never lived in the same region, their relationship was very important to both of them as composers and as friends. 

In many biographies, the relationship between Dvorak and Brahms has been minimized not only by perennial placement of the two composers in separate chapters, but also by prejudices held by the chauvinistic views of the German people. Peter Petersen, a German musicologist, highlights the prejudices held by Germans in a critique of Dvorak’s history in Germany. 

Petersen also helped to establish a more objective comparison between the two composers. The first list below shows some of the similarities between the two composers:

The next list shows some of the differences between the two composers.

Dvorak first became known to Brahms after competing and winning three awards for composition competitions. However, their relationship wouldn’t begin until after Eduard Hanslick, a music critic, encouraged Dvorak to write letters to Brahms. In an attempt to flatter Brahms, Dvorak’s first letters exaggerated his familiarity and love for the great composer’s music. Dvorak’s first letter seems to try to establish a mentorship that would let him learn from Brahms.

Brahms took an interest in Dvorak right away and connected him to Simrock, Brahms’ personal publisher. Although Brahms mentioned his dislike for letter writing, Dvorak was very persistent in building a relationship with Brahms. On one of Brahms’ concert tours, Dvorak sent multiple letters to the composer, an act that most would see as rude. 


Through their shared composition profession, Dvorak and Brahms were able to overcome national prejudices and build a professional and personal relationship. Brahms even offered Dvorak his whole estate after his death. Dvorak’s relationship with Brahms not only helped him grow as a composer, but also helped to launch his works into the international spotlight. After his works were exposed to other countries, Dvorak would soon gain popularity, earning an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Cambridge. Moreover, Dvorak would eventually accept a position as director at the National Conservatory of Music in New York which kickstarted his time in the US where he would compose his New World Symphony. 



Dvorák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman, Princeton University Press, 1993. ProQuest Ebook Central,