"God Is My Shepherd"

Composition History

“God Is My shepherd” is the 4th song in Dvorak’s Biblical Songs. The 10 songs were written in the space of three weeks in March 1894, while the composer was still serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He was recruited to that position by the president of the Conservatory, Jeanette Thurber. She offered Dvorak the annual sum of $15,000 to direct the school and conduct several concerts. In Czech terms that salary was about thirty times higher than the amount the Prague Conservatoire was able to offer him.

In 1893 there was a short-lived, but major economic crisis that affected American financial institutions, known as the Panic of 1893. Even the Conservatory felt its impact. The school lost the long-term sponsors upon whom it was dependent, and its president, Jeanette Thurber, was no longer able to meet her obligations towards Dvorak.

Dvorak wrote the Biblical Songs between 5 and 26 March 1894. However, they were not published until a year later after he departed for home in April of 1895. The original piano version was published by the German publisher, Simrock, in 1895, with texts from the 16th century Czech Bible, the Bible of Kralice. Dvořák took particular care that the English and German translations of the Czech texts were appropriate to the vocal line. The solemn and profoundly intimate character of the Biblical Songs is surprising given that Dvorak began writing the songs at the highest point in his career, not quite three months after the premiere of his New World Symphony, hitherto his greatest (and never surpassed) triumph as a composer.

There was no external motivation involved, nor was it the product of a commission. The work was the result of a crisis point in Dvorak’s life. However, we have no actual proof of the specific reason for his state of mind at the time (the composer was famous for his ability to mask his emotions).

Books on Dvorak usually state composition of Biblical Songs was prompted by news from Europe of the death of people who had meant a lot to him: his father Frantisek, composers Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Charles Gounod, and conductor Hans von Bulow:

There may well be a simple explanation for Dvorak’s disposition at the time: he had now spent his second year on the American continent and, amid the noise and bustle of the big city, he may have started to feel lonely and nostalgic for his native country. The fact that the work appeared shortly before the Easter holidays may also have played a role.

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