Cello Concerto (Dvořák)
The Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191, by Antonín Dvořák was the composer's last solo concerto, and was written in 1894–1895 for his friend, the cellist Hanuš Wihan, but premiered by the English cellist Leo Stern.
The piece is scored for a full romantic orchestra (with the exception of a 4th horn) containing two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle (last movement only), and strings, and is in the standard three-movement concerto format:
- Allegro (B minor then B major; about 15 minutes)
- Adagio, ma non troppo (G major; about 12 minutes)
- Finale: Allegro moderato – Andante – Allegro vivo (B minor then B major; about 13 minutes)
Total duration: Approximately 40 minutes
In 1865, early in his career, Dvořák started a Cello Concerto in A major, (B. 10). The piece was written for Ludevít Peer, whom he knew well from the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in which they both played. He handed the cello score (with piano accompaniment) over to Peer for review but neither bothered to finish the piece. It was recovered from his estate in 1925.
Hanuš Wihan, among others, had asked for a cello concerto for quite some time, but Dvořák always refused, stating that the cello was a fine orchestral instrument but totally insufficient for a solo concerto. According to Josef Michl, Dvořák was fond of the middle register, but complained about a nasal high register and a mumbling bass. In a letter to a friend, Dvořák wrote that he himself was probably most surprised by his decision to write a cello concerto despite these long held reservations.
Dvořák wrote the concerto while in New York for his third term as the Director of the National Conservatory. In 1894 one of the teachers at the Conservatory, Victor Herbert, also a composer, finished his Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, and premiered it in a series of concerts, commencing on 9 March. Dvořák heard at least two performances of the piece and was inspired to fulfill Wihan's request in composing a cello concerto of his own. Herbert had been principal cellist in the orchestra that premiered Dvořák's "New World" Symphony on 16 December 1893, and wrote his concerto in the same key, E minor. Herbert's middle movement was in B minor, which may have inspired Dvořák to write his concerto in the same key. It was started on 8 November 1894 and completed on 9 February 1895.
After seeing the score, Hanuš Wihan made various suggestions for improvement, including two cadenzas, one at the end of the third movement. But Dvořák accepted only a few minor changes and neither of the cadenzas. The third movement was a tribute to the memory of his recently deceased sister-in-law, Josefina Čermakova. Specifically, the slow, wistful section, before the triumphant ending, quotes his series of songs "The Cypresses", Čermakova's favorite piece. Dvořák wrote to his publishers:
I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.
The finale, he insisted, should close gradually with a diminuendo
... like a breath ... then there is a crescendo, and the last measures are taken up by the orchestra, ending stormily. That was my idea, and from it I cannot recede.
Hanuš Wihan first privately performed the concerto with the composer in Lužany in August 1895. Although he had not accepted most of Wihan's suggested changes, Dvořák still wanted Wihan to publicly premiere the work in London during his visit there in March 1896, and as late as 14 February 1896 he was adamantly refusing to be involved in the performance unless Wihan was the soloist. Why the English cellist Leo Stern was finally chosen as the soloist instead of Hanuš Wihan has been the subject of various theories:
- Wihan refused to play the work after Dvořák had forbidden him from playing the two cadenzas he had proposed
- the London date clashed with concert dates for the Bohemian Quartet, to which Wihan was already contracted
- the Philharmonic Society had engaged Leo Stern without consulting Dvořák, and the composer had not made it clear to the Society that he had promised the first performance to Wihan
- Stern had come into contact with Dvořák in Prague and when it became clear that Wihan was unable to play the premiere, Dvorak selected Stern to take his place
- Stern was given permission only after sending Dvořák two rare breeds of pigeon (the composer was a great pigeon lover).
There may be some element of truth in each of these theories. However, whatever happened, it is not true (as has often been reported) that Wihan and Dvořák had any sort of falling out over the matter. Wihan went on to perform the concerto with great success, including under Dvořák's baton in Budapest on 20 December 1899 and they remained firm friends.
The concerto's premiere took place on 19 March 1896, in Queen's Hall in London with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dvořák, with Leo Stern as the soloist. The cello played by Stern was the 1684 "General Kyd", one of only about 60 cellos made by Stradivarius.
The concerto was published in 1896 by N. Simrock, Berlin.
The large-scale sonata form first movement starts with a lengthy introduction by the orchestra, which states both themes and allows the soloist to expand on each. The first theme is played throughout the movement and during the last part of the third movement, giving the concerto a cyclic structure. The solo cello begins with a quasi improvisando section stating the theme in B major followed by triple-stopped chords. The cello then plays the theme again in E major. This concerto requires a lot of technical ability, especially in the coda where the cello plays octaves and many double stops. The solo cello ends with trills then a high B octave. The movement ends tutti with the restatement of the first theme marked grandioso and fortissimo.
Following this opening essay is the lengthy Adagio, a lyrical movement which features a cadenza-like section which is accompanied mainly by flutes. The cello plays double stops accompanied by left-hand pizzicato on open strings. The movement ends with the cello playing harmonics very quietly.
The final movement is formally a rondo. It opens with the horn playing the main theme quietly. A gradual crescendo leads into a dramatic woodwinds and strings section. The solo cello enters by playing the modified main theme loudly which is marked risoluto. The orchestra plays the new modified theme again. Then the cello enters with a melody played on the A string played with thirty-second notes on the D string. This fast section leads into a section marked poco meno mosso, dolce, and piano. A crescendo and accelerando leads into a fast arpeggio played in sixteenth-note triplets. A fast scale leads into a loud tutti section presenting new material. The cello enters and a gradual decrescendo to another restatement of the theme marked piano. This is followed by a contrasting, loud restatement of the theme played by woodwinds accompanied by strings and brass. This is followed by a moderato section in C major and eventually meno mosso which slowly modulates from A major to C-sharp major to B-flat major and finally goes to the original tempo in B major. This is followed by another quiet and slow section which uses material from the first movement and second movement. The concerto ends allegro vivo presented by full orchestra.
Dvořák's friend and mentor Johannes Brahms had written a double concerto for violin and cello in 1887, eight years before Dvořák's cello concerto. He corrected the proofs of Dvořák's concerto for the composer and hence he knew the work intimately from the score. In 1896, Robert Hausmann had played it at his home with Brahms' piano accompaniment, and Brahms is reported as saying: "If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!" On 7 March 1897, Brahms heard Hugo Becker's performance of the piece in a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he said to his friend Gänsbacher before the concert: "Today you will hear a real piece, a male piece!"
Dvořák's original score, before he accepted a few of the numerous changes suggested by Hanuš Wihan, has been described as "much more musical", and this version has been performed from time to time. Throughout the piece, a motif which resembles American folk music reoccurs. It was suggested that Dvořák was heavily influenced by the music of native Americans and that he used his inspiration in the Cello Concerto.
Performed by John Michel
Performed by Hans Goldstein with the Milwaukee Youth Orchestra
Performed by John Michel
Performed by John Michel
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- European Archive Copyright free LP recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed by Zara Nelsova (cello), Josef Krips (conductor), and the London Symphony Orchestra (for non-American viewers only) at the European Archive.
- Mischel Cherniavsky, cello; October 18, 1943; Music Hall Theatre, Seattle
- New York Times, 12 September 1904
- Michael Steinberg, The Concerto
- Guild Music
- Classics and Jazz
- Music 33
- The Independent
- Extract from Steven Isserlis’s book Why Handel Waggled His Wig
- Hanus Wihan
- Unearthing Johannes, Robert Kameczura
- Florence May, "Johannes Brahms" Vol 2, Munich 1983, P. 301
- Florence May, Johannes Brahms Vol 2, Munich 1983, p. 303
- Dimitry Markevitch, Some Thoughts on More Rational Cello Fingerings
- Clapham, John. "Antonín Dvořák, Musician and Craftsman". St. Martin's Press, New York, 1966.
- Smaczny, Jan. Dvořák: Cello Concerto. Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
- Dvořák, Antonín: Violoncellový koncert op. 104. (Violoncello e piano) Praha: Editio Bärenreiter, 2004. H 1200