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Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 December 2, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Classical, Music.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is my favorite classical string music, ever.

The cello soloist is Yo-Yo Ma, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Kurt Masur.

From program notes written for the Kennedy Center:

Dvořák composed his B-minor Concerto in New York between November 8, 1894, and February 9, 1895, and revised the final movement substantially after his return to Prague in June of the latter year. Leo Stern was the soloist in the first performance, which Dvořák himself conducted in London on March 19, 1986. In the National Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of this work, on March 14, 1943, Raya Garousova was the soloist and Hans Kindler conducted; in the most recent one, at Wolf Trap on June 13, 2003, the soloist was Alban Gerhardt and the conductor was Leonard Slatkin.

In addition to the solo cello, the score, dedicated to Hanuš Wihan, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, and strings. Duration, 42 minutes.

This magnificent concerto is one of the several masterworks Dvořák composed during his three-year sojourn in New York (1892-95) as director of the National Conservatory of Music. Like his other works of that period, it is thoroughly characteristic of his personal style and the Czech idiom he had embraced, but probably would never have come into being if he had not been in America at that time. The impetus for it, he acknowledged, came in large measure from his encounter with an American musician who was one of his faculty colleagues at the Conservatory, the Irish-born, German-trained Victor Herbert.

Herbert, remembered now as the composer of such operettas as Naughty Marietta and Mademoiselle Modiste, had a profound effect on America’s musical life–as composer, cellist, conductor and all-round activist. He served as principal cellist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; succeeded Patrick S. Gilmore as director of the famous 22nd Regiment Army Band; performed under Tchaikovsky, Theodore Thomas and Anton Seidl; founded the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1898 and served as its conductor for six years. Herbert’s opera Natoma was produced in Philadelphia, and another, Madeleine, was given at the Met. One of his last works in any form was a Suite of Serenades commissioned by Paul Whiteman for the historic 1924 concert in which Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue received its premiere. Herbert performed his own two concertos for cello with the New York Philharmonic, and Dvořák, who was by then a close friend (they had discussed working jointly on grand-scaled patriotic cantata which, however, never got beyond the discussion stage), attended the premiere of the Second, on March 10, 1894; he was impressed so strongly that he decided to compose a cello concerto of his own.

Actually, Dvořák’s very first attempt at writing a concerto was one for cello in A minor which he composed at the age of 24 but abandoned without completing the orchestration. (Two performing editions have been produced in the last 60 years.) Much later, after composing his concertos for piano and for violin, he toured as pianist with the cellist Hanuš Wihan, for whom he composed some short pieces, and who asked him for a concerto. Until he heard Herbert’s Concerto, he said, he felt the cello was an ungrateful instrument for a concerto; indeed, even while at work on the B minor Concerto he told friends he had undertaken it only at Wihan’s insistence. But Herbert provided a strong example, and his imaginative use of the orchestra apparently encouraged Dvořák to write for a much larger orchestra than he had used in his piano and violin concertos.

When Dvořák gave Wihan the score, the cellist proceeded to write an elaborate cadenza for the last movement; the composer firmly refused to permit such an interpolation, but he did dedicate the work to Wihan and fully intended that it should be introduced by his old friend. The premiere, however, had been promised to London, where the only dates available were dates for which Wihan had booked himself elsewhere; Dvořák tried unsuccessfully to change the date for the premiere, threatening to refuse to conduct unless Wihan could perform with him, but eventually, after explaining the situation to Wihan, he did conduct the premiere in London as scheduled, with the English cellist Leo Stern as his soloist, and it was with Stern that he introduced the work to Prague three weeks later. Wihan gave the first of his many performances of the Concerto in January 1899 in The Hague, with Willem Mengelberg conducting. (By that time Wihan had become a member of the Bohemian Quartet, whose second violinist was Dvořák’s pupil and son-in-law Josef Suk, remembered now as a composer and as grandfather of the eponymous violinist so admired in the last decades of the twentieth century.)

The Concerto’s majestic character is established at once in the elaborate orchestral introduction. Prominent at the outset are the clarinets that are to figure conspicuously throughout the work; here they state the imposing principal theme, which is immediately taken up by the full orchestra, grandioso. Then the horn introduces the lyrical second theme, and a third, dancelike motif is heard in the orchestra before it subsides for the dramatic entrance of the soloist in an impassioned statement of the principal theme (quasi improvvisando). The ensuing treatment of these materials is heroic in scale, but never “larger than life.” While virtuosity is demanded in huge proportions, there is no concession in the form of a cadenza: the movement continues symphonically to the end, in which the principal theme is apotheosized with a resounding flourish of trumpets and drums.

The slow movement’s warmly expressive them is presented by the woodwinds, then taken up by the cello and clarinets. The mood of repose is dispelled momentarily by a forceful orchestral declamation before the second theme appears: it is a tuen Dvořák adapted from his song “Let me wander alone with my dreams” (Op. 82, No. 1). Like Mozart before him, Dvořák married a woman whose sister he had once loved; he retained a strong affection for his sister-in-law, and this was her favorite among his songs. She was seriously ill when he was working on the Concerto early in 1895, and he wrote the theme into the work as a gesture of affectionate gesture of concern; when she died, in May of that year, he composed a new ending for the final movement in which the theme reappears, and this probably accounted as much as purely musical considerations for his irritation with Wihan’s wanting to intrude his cadenza.

The finale is a jubilant and vigorous rondo, not without martial overtones. According to some commentators, its robust spirit sprang from Dvořák’s happy anticipation of returning home following completion of his contract in New York. The movement begins with the simple but striking theme stated by the horns over the marchlike tread of the lower strings; in no time the theme makes its way through the full orchestra and then to the cello itself. From this point on there is a heady succession of new themes–some energetic, some lyrical, one glowingly shared by the cello and a solo violin. Dvořák provided his own description of the coda:

The finale closes with a gradual diminuendo, like a breath–with reminiscences of the first and second movements, the solo dying down to pp. Then the sound begins to grow, and the last bars are taken over by the orchestra, which provides a tempestuous ending.

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1. Simon O - January 15, 2008

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Anyway, thank whomever is responsible with a hardy slap on the back!

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