Composed: c. 1761-1765
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 16, 1967, Lawrence Foster conducting, with soloist Jacqueline du Pré
About this Piece
Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major is one of those rare things in music: a genuine masterpiece that vanished, only to be discovered years later. In this case, it was many years later, for this music was lost for almost exactly two centuries before it was discovered in 1961 in the Radenín Castle collection, which had been deposited in the Czech National Library in Prague. Though the manuscript was not in Haydn’s hand, the main theme of the first movement had been listed by the composer in his Entwurf-Katalog, the roster he prepared of his works, and there is no question about this music’s authenticity.
Haydn composed the Concerto sometime between 1761 and 1765, during his earliest years with the Esterházy family and at the time he was composing his first symphonies. The Esterházy family was still living in its palace in Eisenstadt in these years, and this work was doubtless first performed in the palace’s music hall, with its handsome painted ceiling, rough plank flooring, and crystalline acoustics. This is not a classical concerto as that form would be refined two decades later by Mozart, when it depended on the contrast of thematic material and the collision and resolution of different tonalities. Instead, Haydn’s concertos are still rooted in Baroque concerto form, with orchestral ritornellos and (more or less) monothematic movements. This Cello Concerto in C major is one of the most successful of Haydn’s works in the form, perhaps because it breaks through the limits of the Baroque concerto, enriching the ritornello with themes that are so full of subordinate ideas that they allow a greater variety of material.
The Concerto opens not with a fast movement as in a classical concerto but with a Moderato. The orchestra presents the spirited, almost florid, ritornello theme at length before the cello makes its entrance with the same idea, and soloist and orchestra take turns elaborating this, often seizing on subordinate phrases as they proceed. Haydn asks for some virtuoso playing from his soloist here and offers the opportunity for a cadenza before the final ritornello. The Adagio moves to F major, and here Haydn has his wind players (pairs of oboes and horns) sit out, for the soloist is accompanied only by the strings; the soloist almost sneaks in on a quiet sustained C as the strings begin their second statement of the theme. Violins launch the dashing Allegro molto with a brief but snappy idea that will recur in many forms. Again the cello slips in almost unnoticed, but this low profile does not last long, for this is the most brilliant of the movements, full of bravura writing and brilliant runs throughout the range of the instrument. —Eric Bromberger