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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

About this Piece

In September 1892, Dvořák, accompanied by some of his family, arrived in America to take up the post of director of the National Conservatory of Music. The invitation came from the conservatory’s wealthy founder, Jeannette Thurber, and proffered Dvořák a substantial salary as well as the chance to perform his own compositions. Dvořák accepted the offer and spent the next two-and-a-half years teaching and performing in the United States.  

The Cello Concerto was one of only two works Dvořák composed during his last year in New York. Cellist and composer Victor Herbert was Dvořák’s unwitting muse after Dvořák attended a performance of Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto. After the performance, Dvořák is said to have gone backstage, thrown his arms around Herbert, and exclaimed, “Splendid! Splendid!” Dvořák especially liked Herbert’s brilliant use of the cello’s upper registers, which until then Dvořák had regarded as weak and limited. He also observed the three trombones used to accompany the soloist in the slow movement. Dvořák would abandon conventional instrumentation in his own Concerto by adding three trombones, as well as tuba, piccolo, and triangle.  

Dvořák’s abandonment of the Classical concerto scoring for a more symphonic orchestra by augmenting the brass with three trombones and tuba could have presented a twofold problem for any soloist: Not only are the brass instruments louder than the cello, but they also play in the same low register. Dvořák skillfully avoids obscuring the cello’s sound by allowing a reversal of roles as the cello at times accompanies the orchestra. There are also a number of lush and prominent solos given to various instruments as well as long passages where the cello is silent. It seems obvious that Dvořák desired his Concerto to be much more a dialogue and less a virtuoso showcase. 

The first movement’s opening section is constructed like a symphonic exposition and begins with a theme reminiscent of a funeral march. This dark and brooding theme is soon taken up by the full orchestra, builds to a climax, then gently quiets and gives way to the movement’s second theme, a wonderfully tender melody played by a single horn. The cello’s entrance, marked quasi improvisando, develops in the remote key of A-flat minor over anxious violin and viola tremolando.   

The Adagio ma non troppo begins peacefully in G major. The expansive and lyrical development of the first subject leads to a gentle climax and denouement. We are not given time to reflect before the orchestra explodes with a loud and jarring G-minor chord. It is here that Dvořák quotes “Leave Me Alone” from his Four Songs, Op. 82, a favorite of his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, with whom a younger Dvořák had fallen in love long before deciding to marry her sister. Josefina, who became gravely ill while the composer was in America, died soon after his return to Bohemia. This quote is sung with passionate intensity by solo cello over anxious arpeggios in the violins. The cello then takes up arpeggios, with woodwinds playing the theme. After passing through several ambiguous tonalities, the opening section repeats and draws the movement to a reluctant close.  

The finale is a lively, dance-like movement partly shaped by Dvořák’s warm thoughts of his impending return home to Bohemia. The melancholy and longing of the first two movements is cast off and replaced with an exuberant hopefulness. Once in the bright key of B major, the soloist joins solo violin in a duet of absolute warmth and brilliance. The movement includes one last reference to “Leave Me Alone,” this time in a major key, as well as subtle echoes of the first movement’s theme. A brilliant crescendo for the full orchestra takes us to the thunderous final chords. —J. Anthony McAlister