Dvořák: The Czech Musical Maestro in Lewisham

By the late 1870s the music of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák had already travelled all the way from Bohemia to Great Britain. It soon became so popular that in 1884 the man himself – with no English and never having been on a ship or seen the sea – arrived in London for the first of nine visits over the next twelve years.

Dvořák was also made an honorary member of what is now known as the Royal Philharmonic Society, following the example of such illustrious musicians as Mendelssohn, Rossini, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and Verdi.

In this foreign land he and his travelling companion still stuck to their daily habits, such as rising at a very early hour well before their hosts.

They wandered along the London streets in search of breakfast elsewhere, and spying what they thought was a large café, they entered to order a meal but were eventually made to understand that they could not be served. For this was no public café but rather the Athenaeum private members club on Pall Mall!

Two years later Dvořák was staying in an even grander building after directing a performance of his oratorio St Ludmila at The Crystal Palace. Here, the composer was the guest of the proprietor of his British publishers Novello & Co, Henry Littleton, who lived nearby in a property named Westwood House on Westwood Hill, in what is today the Sydenham part of Lewisham borough.

And some property it was! Littleton had bought the building in 1874 and began remodelling it in 1879 “as a Renaissance fantasy palace with a magnificent music room as its centrepiece.” It was in the manner of a red-brick French château, complete with gables, turrets, terraces, ornamental gardens, a carriage drive and an ornamental lodge.

No expense was spared – the fireplace alone cost £1000 (over £100,000 today). Doors were elaborately carved in mahogany, and the “magnificent music room” – which measured 60 feet by 30 feet – was also fitted in richly carved wood with a minstrel gallery at one end. The grounds of Westwood House covered five acres, and the picture below shows the house as it was in 1880.

In that music room in April 1886 Franz Liszt gave what turned out to be one of his last piano recitals, to an audience of around 400. Later that year, Dvořák also made use of the room to perform some of his own music, as well as being interviewed by the Pall Mall Gazette in what the reporter called “Mr. Littleton’s charming villa at Sydenham, which is becoming famous as a resort of distinguished musicians.”  The photo of Dvořák above was taken in the house.

In 1890, having conducted his Symphony No.8 at St James’s Hall near Piccadilly, Dvořák came again to stay at Westwood House. Due to Henry Littleton’s sudden death in 1888, this time it was as the guest of Henry’s son, his successor at Novello’s, Alfred Littleton.

In 1895 the house was put up for sale but it was not until four years later that it was again occupied, now as an orphanage run by the National Union of Teachers. It remained as such until 1952 when the building was demolished to make way for the Sheenewood Estate. Today a care home stands there, having kept the name of Westwood House.

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Tickets for Saturday’s concert in the Great Hall at Goldsmiths are available now. Buy them directly from TicketSource or on the door on Saturday.

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