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Composed: c. 1783
Length: 26 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns,
strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 4, 1921, with soloist Ilya Bronson, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
We don’t normally think of Haydn as a composer of concertos. It is true that they occupy a relatively small place in his body of work, but this is only because that body of work is so vast. Haydn actually left more than two dozen concertos that we know are authentic (Haydn’s popularity in his own day meant that many works were falsely attributed to him for marketing purposes, so there were many inauthentic “Haydn” works). Perhaps half that many other concertos are known to have been lost, largely because of fires in the palace of the Esterhazy princes where Haydn worked.
Though he wasn’t a virtuoso performer, and was thus typically writing his concertos for other people, he also showed a keen ability to find the peculiar voice of each solo instrument, particularly instruments for which concertos were not often written. In Haydn’s day, the cello fell into that category. The instrument arrived late on the scene, evolving, or perhaps coalescing, from larger and smaller members of the violin family in the second half of the 17th century, and then took a long time to displace the flat-backed, fretted, six-string bass viol. Once the cello was firmly established as a bass instrument, it tended to remain a supporting player. It was the more adventurous composers like Vivaldi, or cellists like Boccherini, who gave it star billing. A cello concerto could be an acoustically difficult thing to bring off in the 18th century, because in the very resonant rooms where music was usually played, a rapid low passage that sounds perfectly clear to the player can sound like a vague wash of sound to listeners a few feet away. At least one modern musicologist and performer has suggested that this was precisely the effect the composers wanted when they wrote such passages, but it is probably not a coincidence that the cello became more of a soloist as it became more common to play in the instrument’s tenor and alto range.
Haydn wrote the second of his two surviving cello concertos in about 1783, when he had been running the Esterhazy musical establishment for more than two decades. Anton Kraft, the Esterhazy orchestra’s principal cellist from 1778 to 1790, was a noted virtuoso, and though nothing definite is known about the concerto’s origin, it has always been presumed that Haydn wrote it for Kraft. In fact, an 1837 German music encyclopedia proposed that Kraft, not Haydn, was its real composer, a theory apparently suggested by Kraft’s grandson. Though a reasonably accurate version of the concerto was published in 1804 while Haydn was still alive, the manuscript score disappeared, and in the absence of hard evidence, the Kraft theory was enough to throw the concerto’s authorship into doubt for more than a century. It was only when the manuscript was rediscovered after World War II that the question was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Despite the questions about its pedigree, the second cello concerto never had trouble holding a place in the repertoire. It is the stuff of which classics are made, with graceful, lilting melodies that both sing and dance. Haydn avoided acoustical muddiness in grand style: the cello spends a great deal of the concerto playing soprano, with many passages that a violin could play without transposing. Such a use of the instrument is doubly remarkable because the neck of the 18th-century cello was shorter than the modern cello neck, so Haydn was pushing the limits of the cello’s range, and making it sing and scamper there. This sort of writing, though not unprecedented, was very much on the cutting edge in the 1780s.
— Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated program for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, the Coleman Chamber Concerts, and the Salzburg Festival.