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FastNotes

  • In 1892, Dvorák moved to the U.S. to accept a directorship at the National Conservatory of Music, which offered a substantial salary and the chance to program his own work. He spent the next two-and-a-half years teaching and performing here.

  • The piece was inspired by a concert in which Victor Herbert performed his own Second Cello Concerto. Impressed, Dvorák then made substantial use of the cello’s upper register and added trombones, tuba, piccolo, and triangle to the conventional concerto orchestra.
  • Hanus Wihan, a close friend of Dvorák’s and one of Europe’s leading cellists, requested that certain passages be rewritten to be “more difficult”; however, a fallout ensued between the two after Dvorák refused to add Wihan’s suggested 59-bar cadenza to the finale.
  • The opening symphonic exposition builds a theme reminiscent of a funeral march. The Adagio second movement was a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefina Kounitzová. The finale is a lively dance movement shaped by Dvorák’s thoughts of returning home to Bohemia.

Composed: 1894-1895
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

In reading through Dvořák’s correspondence and the comments of his friends during the four years he spent in America – 1891-1894 – nominally as director of the newly-founded National Conservatory of Music in New York, we get the impression that the composer was most happy there in the company of his Czech countrymen. And it was thoughts of the old country, more than direct experiences of the New World, that fueled his creative fires; which is not to say that he didn’t pick up some useful “native” ideas in traveling the United States. His minimal duties (which required the services of a translator in class) gave him ample time to compose. The music he started or wrote in its entirety during his stint as director of the Conservatory includes some of his most intensely, insistently Czech – and greatest – music: the string quartets Opp. 96, 105, 106; the String Quintet, Op. 97; the E-minor Symphony (“From the New World”); the Te Deum, Op. 103; and the Cello Concerto.

It’s doubtful that this giant among virtuoso cello concertos would exist without the unwitting assistance of the Irish-American composer Victor Herbert, who was also on the faculty of the National Conservatory. Herbert’s success mainly as a composer of operettas did not preclude membership in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, as principal cellist. It was Herbert’s performance of his own Second Cello Concerto in 1894 with the New York Philharmonic that inspired Dvořák to complete the concerto he had begun and set aside the previous year, complaining about the “impossibility” of balancing the cello with a large Romantic orchestra.

This was in fact Dvořák's second go at a cello concerto; the first was completed in 1865 but never orchestrated by the composer. Insecurity rather than a dislike for the instrument seems to underlie his difficulties with the second concerto. Perhaps, too, he was resisting the nagging of a Prague acquaintance, the cellist Hanuš Wihan, to provide him with a big solo vehicle. But while Herbert’s pretty, if pedestrian, work may have shown Dvořák the way in matters of solo-orchestra balance, the Czech composer was to bring a measure of expressivity and practical smarts to his own work that makes his score stand head and shoulders above Herbert’s and other components of the sparse 19th-century repertory for cello and orchestra.

First, Dvořák’s own solution to the “balance problem” and of keeping conductor and orchestra interested in accompanying is to allow the orchestra center-stage with long, gorgeously scored tutti: the one that opens the piece usually clocks in at around four minutes. Dvořák creates perfect unions of solo cello and full orchestra, of solo cello and the solo winds, while also inventing gratifying solos for orchestra principals, e.g., the horn in the first-movement exposition, without the cello.

Dvořák presented the finished concerto to Wihan, who was entrusted with the fingerings and bowings, when he returned to Prague in 1895. But the cellist also set about making changes in and additions to the score. Dvořák found this interference unacceptable, whereupon he presented his unadulterated version to his publisher, Simrock, with the following note: “I must insist that my work be printed as I have composed it. You may have it only if you promise not to allow anyone to make changes without my consent… And there is to be no cadenza in the last movement [Wihan had written one]. The finale closes gradually, diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements – the solo dies away to pianissimo, then swells again, the final bars taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is what I wrote and what I want. If you agree to these conditions you can have the Concerto and the Te Deum for 6000 marks.” His terms were accepted.

The soloist for the premiere – London, March 1896, under the composer’s baton – was the British cellist Leo Stern, who, at Dvořák’s invitation, also introduced it to Prague several weeks later. It was an instantaneous success on both occasions.

Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.