Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104, B191
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
8 November 1894 - 9 February 1895 (new conclusion: May(?) and June 1895)
Premiere - date and place
19 March 1896, London
Leo Stern (cello), Philharmonic Society, conductor Antonin Dvorak
Simrock, 1896, Berlin
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, triangle, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + cello solo
Parts / movements
2. Adagio ma non troppo
3. Finale. Allegro moderato
approx. 41 min.
composition history and sources of inspiration
Dvorak wrote this work during the final academic year of his time in the United States. He had never been particularly drawn to the concertante form; he had thus far only produced two instrumental concertos with orchestra: his piano concerto from 1876 and his violin concerto written three years later. One could conceivably add to these the creation of Dvorak’s young days, the concerto for cello with piano accompaniment which he wrote at the age of twenty-four at the request of a cellist from the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. He regarded this early concerto, however, as incompetent and worthless (its autograph was only discovered twenty-one years after the composer’s death). Moreover, Dvorak did not recognise the cello as a solo instrument: according to a surviving document, he complained that it “whinges up above, and grumbles down below”.
Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1894, he suddenly decided to write a cello concerto. He wrote of his progress to his friend Alois Gobl in a letter: “I’ve just finished the first movement of a concerto for the cello!! Don’t be surprised; I was surprised myself, and I still wonder why I chose to embark upon something like this.” A key impulse which led to Dvorak’s decision to choose this genre was his experience of the premiere of Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, by American composer and cellist Victor Herbert, held in New York on 9 March 1894. Herbert was Dvorak’s colleague from the National Conservatory, where he taught the cello, and he was also principle cellist with the New York Philharmonic Society. He performed the solo part of his new work himself at the premiere. He is said to have been inspired in his composition by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, a fact reflected in his choice of the same key (E minor). Dvorak attended the premiere with Josef Kovarik, according to whose account the composer was particularly impressed by the instrumentation, “especially at one point in the work, in the free movement, where Herbert used three trombones – but so shrewdly that they didn’t stifle the solo cello, and the instrument clearly projected through them.” Dvorak must have truly been taken with Herbert’s work, for the very next day he went to hear it again and later even borrowed the score from Herbert in order to study it in more detail. However, Dvorak’s plans only began to take shape more than six months later since he didn’t embark upon his composition of the concerto until 8 November. Dvorak worked on the piece for three months, completing it on 9 February of the following year. This was not the final version, however, since, a few months later – after his return from the United States – he thoroughly reworked the end section: after bar 448 he replaced four bars with a new section of sixty bars, after which follows the original eight-bar coda.
While the formal aspects of the work reflect Dvorak’s fascination with Herbert’s concerto, its music mirrors his experiences at that particular time in his life: his sojourn in New York no longer brought him the joy of the previous two years, he was missing his children and Vysoka, and news from home brought worrying reports of the bleak state of health of Josefina Kounicova, a woman he had loved in his young days. A reminiscence of Josefina appears in the second movement of the concerto. In its middle section Dvorak quotes the melody of his song “Leave me alone” (from the cycle Four Songs, Op. 82), of which Josefina was particularly fond. Immediately after the composer’s return to Bohemia, Josefina passed away, so he decided to reopen a composition he had already regarded as final. Into the sudden tranquility before the close of the concerto he reintroduced an exact quotation of this song rendered by the solo violin. This entire passage of music might be regarded as a form of epitaph for Josefina.
This alteration, which plays a fundamental role in the overall tone of the work, was something in which Dvorak took great pride. This fact is clear both from the composer’s correspondence, and also from his disagreement with the cellist Hanus Wihan, to whom the work is dedicated. Wihan, Dvorak’s friend and colleague from the Prague Conservatoire, was to have presented the work in its world premiere. On the invitation of Josef Hlavka, they met up at Luzany castle in September 1895 to play through the whole concerto together, with Dvorak at the piano; Wihan proposed several minor changes to the solo part, some of which Dvorak accepted. In addition to these small revisions, however, Wihan also requested that, instead of a section of Dvorak’s original music, a traditional virtuoso solo cadenza be inserted into the final part of the third movement instead, which he had fashioned himself. Dvorak’s intimate conclusion to the concerto had evidently seemed too ineffectual without an opportunity for the soloist to show off his technical skills. This request on Wihan’s part is seen as a fundamental lack of understanding of the work. However, there is no documentation to prove whether or not Wihan was familiar with the biographical context of the concerto. Given Dvorak’s reticence, it is highly probable that he wasn’t. Dvorak rejected Wihan’s cadenza out of hand, justifying his decision during negotiations with Simrock on the publication of the work. On 3 October 1895 Dvorak wrote to Simrock, stating the following:
“I must insist that my work be published just as I have written it. I give you my work only if you promise me that no one – not even my esteemed 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. In short, it has to remain the way I have felt it and thought it out. The cadenza in the last movement is not in the score, nor in the piano reduction; I told Wihan as soon as he had shown it to me that it is not possible to cobble the work together in this manner. The finale ends gradually in a diminuendo, like a slow exhalation – with reminiscences from the first and second movements – the solo fades away to pp, then there is a crescendo, and the last measures are taken up by the orchestra, ending stormily. That is my idea and I cannot abandon it.”
In its overall expression, the cello concerto differs fundamentally from the majority of the composer’s other works from his so-called American period. This is not music written under the influence of his imposing new surroundings, as was the case of his New World Symphony, nor is it a manifestation of his happiness and contentment, as in his String Quartet in F major. The principal tone of the work is melancholy, but without any sense of hopeless resignation. This is one of Dvorak’s innermost works, a piece of profound contemplation but also monumental expression and liberal proportions. It differs from Dvorak’s previous piano and violin concertos given the greater presence of the orchestra, which is an equal partner to the solo instrument throughout the work; some even claim that Dvorak’s cello concerto is, in fact, his tenth symphony. In the solo part Dvorak made ideal use of all the different sounds the cello is capable of, above all, its ability eloquently to convey broad, cantabile melodies. The almost continuous melodic current, also the numerous innovations in his instrumentation (e.g. the dialogue between the cello and the flute in the first movement), and the overall structure of the work are some of the most convincing testimonies of the composer’s exceptional musical invention. Dvorak himself was aware of the work’s extraordinary qualities, a fact mentioned variously in surviving correspondence. On 11 March 1895 he informed Josef Bohuslav Foerster: “I have finished my new concerto for cello and I say to you with certainty that this concerto far surpasses my other concertos, both the violin and the piano. Do not be surprised that I am writing this to you; self-praise is generally not reliable, but I have to tell you that this work brings me pure joy and I think that I am not mistaken.”
formal structure and content
The concerto observes the traditional three-movement scheme. The first movement in sonata form begins with an unusually lengthy orchestral introduction lasting 86 bars, during which both main themes are exposed. The use of the minor seventh in the second bar associates the main theme with an idea typical for the composer’s so-called American period. The second subject is a lyrical melody that is almost vocal in character. Dvorak noted later that it cost him “a great deal of reflection” to find its correct form but “I finally found what it was I wanted”. Dvorak must have had a particularly strong affection for this theme since, in spite of his famous external emotional restraint, he wrote of this melody in a letter to Gobl, admitting: “Every time I play it, I start to tremble all over”. The development works only with the main subject, which undergoes all manner of transformations and, at times, evolves into whole clusters of melodic variants. With its major-key variations on the main themes, the recapitulation introduces a rather more optimistic mood and leads into a stunning coda.
The second movement of the concerto is one of Dvorak’s most profound lyrical expressions. Its outer sections treat the same thematic material which is varied at the close of the movement in some kind of quasi improvisation piece. The middle part of the movement is given over to a reminiscence of the theme of Dvorak’s song “Leave me alone” from the earlier cycle Four Songs, Op. 82.
The final movement is essentially written in rondo form, yet the nature of its thematic treatment, like the extended finale, shifts it far away from traditional finale rondo movements. The tangible autobiographical undercurrent of the movement (and of the whole work) is also intensified by the harmonic development from the main theme in B minor to the prevailing major-key character of the movement later on. It is this approach, “moving from the darkness into the light”, which is seen to reflect Dvorak’s joyful anticipation of his definitive return to his homeland: the last movement of the concerto was written only a few weeks before his departure from New York. Here, Dvorak also quotes the main theme of the first movement, which reinforces the cyclical nature of the piece. After arriving back home Dvorak, mourning the death of Josefina Kounicova, considerably expanded the end of the movement: this profoundly intimate passage, simply orchestrated, again cites Josefina’s favourite song, “Leave me alone”. Providing the greatest possible contrast to this meditative fragment, there then follows a short coda which resolutely closes the work in tutti fortissimo.
events preceding the premiere
There was great interest in Dvorak’s new work, with artists such as conductor Hans Richter and Viennese cellist Ferdinand Hellmesberger eager to perform it. Dvorak, however, dedicated the piece to Hanus Wihan, whom he also wished to see on the podium presenting the work’s premiere. Wihan proposed that part of Dvorak’s original music be replaced at the end of the third movement with a virtuoso cadenza which he, himself, had written, based on various thematic material from the original. But Dvorak insisted upon his conception and resolutely rejected the idea of a cadenza. This disagreement between Dvorak and Wihan is often cited as the reason why the premiere was ultimately given to the English cellist Leo Stern. The facts, however, are more prosaic: the date requested by the concert organisers in London was unsuitable for Wihan, who already had foreign tour commitments with the Czech Quartet and his schedule was extremely limited. We have clear evidence to suggest that a potential falling-out between Dvorak and Wihan had been averted, in particular, the composer’s correspondence with Francesco Berger who was supervising the preparations for the premiere of the concerto in London. Dvorak himself recommended Wihan as the soloist for the premiere: “The concerto will be published shortly (Simrock). My friend, professor Wihan, cellist in our Czech Quartet, could perform it if you approached him. I hope that he will agree to it, but it would be good if you wrote to him asking him if he would perform it.” When it transpired that Wihan was unavailable, Berger began negotiating with 30-year-old English cellist Leo Stern, an admirer of Dvorak who had, himself, expressed an interest in performing the premiere. After initially refusing, mindful of his promise to Wihan, Dvorak finally agreed to the choice of Stern. Wihan did eventually perform Dvorak’s concerto later on, probably for the first time in The Hague on 25 January 1899 during his tour of Holland, and subsequently also with Dvorak as conductor, in Budapest on 20 December 1899.
Apparently Stern himself encouraged Dvorak in his decision to approve the cellist for the work’s premiere by offering to come to Prague to study the work with the composer. The pair did indeed spend two weeks together in Prague and Vysoka, meeting up every day to work on the concerto. Stern was surprised by the technical difficulty of the solo part: “The cello concerto is quite unlike any other cello concerto I have performed to date and it is very difficult as regards intonation. I had to practise almost seven hours a day in order to master it.” To this Dvorak commented: “I was extremely hard on him, but there was nothing for it; nevertheless, he was glad and ready to oblige, and he willingly set to work. We studied the work together and we played every day, but I was never satisfied. He was despondent, but I stood my ground, telling him that it was good, but it had to be even better. And then it really was. When I saw that it was going to be all right, I said: We’re going to London and we’re going to perform!”
Antonin Dvorak’s letter to Francesco Berger, 14 February 1896 (see fig. above):
“My dear friend Berger, I am sorry to announce you that I cannot conduct the performance of the cello concerto. The reason is I have promised to my friend Wihan – he will play it. If you put the concerto into the program, I could not come at all, and will be glad to come another time. With kindly regards sincerely yours Ant. Dvorak.”
Francesco Berger’s letter to Antonin Dvorak, 17 february 1896 (see fig. above):
“My dear friend and honoured Master! We should have been most happy to have had Mr. Wihan to play your Concerto. But as you told me he could not come on the 19 March we thought to please you by including the work and have engaged Mr. Leo Stern who says he knows the Work. [...]”
premiere and subsequent performances
The world premiere of the concerto was held in London’s Queen’s Hall on 19 March 1896 and was conducted by the composer himself. Apart from the cello concerto, the programme also included Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G major and the first five Biblical Songs in the composer’s arrangement with orchestral accompaniment. The reviews of the premiere were extremely complimentary, both towards the work itself, and its interpretation:
“In wealth and beauty of thematic material, as well as in the unusual interest of the development of the first movement, the new concerto yields to none of the composer’s recent works; all three movements are richly melodious, the just balance is maintained between the orchestra and the solo instruments, and the passages written for display are admirably devised. The slow movement, though of rather excessive length, is very beautiful, and the finale brilliant yet by no means trivial. Except for a certain diffusiveness arising from the composer’s prodigality in themes, the concerto is completely successful. Mr. Leo Stern played the solo part with good taste, musicianly expression, and faultless technical skill, and the work was received with much enthusiasm.”
Stern subsequently performed the concerto with the Czech Philharmonic during its Prague premiere on 11 April 1896, again with Dvorak conducting, and then in Leipzig on 3 December of that year with conductor Artur Nikisch, in London on 12 December under conductor August Manns, in Chicago on 29 and 30 January 1897, and in New York on 5 and 6 March 1897. The concerto very soon became celebrated in all the major music venues of Europe and the United States; over the following two years the work was again performed to audiences in London and Leipzig, also in Paris, Boston and Manchester. The celebrated cellist Robert Hausmann was one of the artists to perform the work soon after its premiere. When he played Dvorak’s concerto in his flat with Brahms at the piano in 1896, Brahms was said to have remarked: “If I had known that it was possible to write a cello concerto like this, I would have tried it as well!” Dvorak’s concerto in B minor has become the most famous cello concerto of all time and is central to the key repertoire of all world-class cellists.
period press review
Eduard Hanslick on the Viennese premiere (Neue Freie Presse, 9 March 1897):
“Dvorak has written a magnificent work which has brought to an end the stagnation of violoncello literature. [...] Its melodic invention with unique, magical, south Slav nuances is well grounded in consistent contrapuntal treatment and masterful orchestration. In its broad but crystal-clear structure, the concerto introduces a number of surprisingly effective ideas – such as we have come to expect from Dvorak; I recall, for example, the flute trill which, in the second movement, is so exquisitely woven into the cello cantilena. As always, in this concerto, too, the violoncello is at its most beautiful and most natural in its energetic bass or lyrical baritone register, especially in the gentle Andante. The piece also incorporates the inevitable passages where we are given the chance to admire the technical skills of the virtuoso, but these lack beauty: the fast chromatic sixth-interval runs at the end of the first movement; the long demisemiquaver passages in the extremely high positions in the finale, and so on. The concerto’s soloist Mr Hugo Becker has further consolidated and heightened the glory he deserves. When Dvorak shares his triumph with Becker, there is plenty for both of them.”