Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 6, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Felix Salmond
If someone had told Antonín Dvorák that he would someday compose the Cello Concerto, he would no doubt have responded with an extra dose of his characteristic gentle humility. Dvorák had tried his hand at a cello concerto in 1865, and had apparently thought so little of it that he never bothered to orchestrate it. It lay forgotten until 1925, when it was rediscovered and published in a heavily altered version.
Dvorák seems to have had mixed feelings about the cello as a solo instrument, complaining once that the instrument was “nasal” at the top of its range and “mumbles” at the bottom.
Nonetheless, he turned out three works for cello and orchestra during the three years he spent in New York as director of the National Conservatory: the Rondo in G minor, Op. 94; “Silent Woods” (a transcription of one of his six piano duets From the Bohemian Forests, Op. 68) in 1893; and finally, the magnificent Concerto in B minor, Op. 104.
Dvorák once said that he composed the Concerto only because the noted Czech cellist Hanus? Wihan had asked him to write one. But Wihan’s request lay unfulfilled for years, and a bigger push may have come from the Irish-American cellist/composer Victor Herbert, who taught at the National Conservatory with Dvorák. We know Herbert mainly as a composer of operettas, particularly Babes in Toyland. But in the 1890s he was famous in America as a cello virtuoso and a serious composer. In April 1894, Dvorák attended a Brooklyn concert in which his “New World” Symphony shared the bill with the premiere of Herbert’s Cello Concerto in E minor.
Perhaps Herbert’s concerto awakened Dvorák to a cello concerto’s potential. In any event, he began his own concerto in November, on returning to New York after a summer in Bohemia. In December, while he was composing the slow movement, he got news that his wife’s sister, Josefina Kounicová, was gravely ill in Bohemia. Thirty years earlier (about the time he composed that forsaken first cello concerto), when Josefina was his piano student, Dvorák had fallen in love with her. She did not reciprocate; he wound up marrying her younger sister and Josefina married a count, and the two families remained close. Dvorák based the slow movement’s middle section (after an abrupt and loud modulation from G major to G minor) on the middle part of Josefina’s favorite song, which happened to be one of Dvorák’s Four Songs, Op. 82. He finished the Concerto February 9, 1895, but in May, after the Dvorák family had gone home to Bohemia for good, Josefina died, and Dvorák inserted a slow elegy, based on the first part of the same song, into the finale as a tribute to her, just before the jubilant end.
Dvorák dedicated the Concerto to Wihan, but composer and cellist butted heads over changes Wihan wanted. Dvorák was willing to allow Wihan’s simplifications of some tricky passages to be published as alternatives (such alternative passages in solo parts are not uncommon) but Wihan also wanted to cut the elegy for Josefina (probably not knowing its significance) and substitute a cadenza. Dvorák, needless to say, refused.
Their disagreement was, in a sense, about more than Dvorák’s personal feelings. The lack of a cadenza anywhere in the three movements is one sign that Dvorák had not written a standard-issue virtuoso showpiece concerto, but it is hardly the only one.
The trombones and tuba are another sign. Trombones were rarely used in concertos, partly because they make the orchestra much louder, aggravating the inherent balance problem between soloist and orchestra. Trombones should be a particular problem in a cello concerto, since they play in the same range as the cello and thus would tend to obscure its sound in a way that they would not obscure, say, a violin’s. Dvorák may have gotten the idea of including trombones from Herbert’s Concerto, but their presence here is a hint that the orchestra is going to be important, and that the music is conceived symphonically, not as a piece for cello with incidental orchestral accompaniment.
And indeed, it is remarkable in this starring vehicle how often the cello has a supporting role. Some of its most virtuosic moments are accompaniments to melodic statements by other instruments. In constructing the music this way, Dvorák avoids the typical concerto problem of passages with lots of fast notes that are impressive but unmemorable. There are plenty of solo turns for other instruments, and the cello has some long breaks; these not only avoid monotony, but lend it renewed impact when it reappears.
Having included trombones, Dvorák makes striking use of them, not only in the way they power the first movement’s thunderous conclusion, but also in the soft but rich tones they lend to the change of key and mood just before the cello’s first entrance, and the quiet majesty they impart in accompanying the dialogue between clarinet and cello early in the slow movement.
The Concerto’s wealth of good melodies is obvious, but it’s easy to miss the inventive way the melodic material is continually transformed. The very first theme is dark and foreboding when it begins the Concerto; it turns stormy and heroic when the whole orchestra picks it up, then boldly assertive when the cello makes its appearance with it in B major. It mutates into a lament when the cello enters in the development. Dvorák avoids beating it to death by omitting it from the recapitulation, but then gives it a rhapsodic character in the first movement’s coda. Finally, it makes a reflective return in the finale, part of the elegy to Josefina.
— Howard Posner