Antonín Dvořák was born at Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves), Bohemia, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He began his Cello Concerto in New York on November 8, 1894, working simultaneously on sketches and the full score, and completed it on February 9, 1895. In response to the death of his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, he composed a new coda for the finale in June 1895. With Dvořák conducting, Leo Stern gave the first performance on March 19, 1896, in London. The first North American performance was given on December 19, 1896, when Alwin Schroeder was the soloist and Emil Paur conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Walter V. Ferner was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, with Louis Persinger conducting, in January 1923. In the most recent performances, in June 2008, Alisa Weilerstein was soloist and David Robertson conducted. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about forty minutes.
Dvořák’s fame at home began with the performance in 1873 of a patriotic cantata called Heirs of the White Mountain. (It was the defeat of the Bohemians by the Austrians at the battle of the White Mountain just outside Prague in 1620 that led to the absorption of Bohemia into the Hapsburg Empire, a condition that lasted until 1918.) His international reputation was made by the first series of Slavonic Dances of 1878 and also by the Stabat Mater. The success of the latter work in England was nothing less than sensational, and particularly in the world of choir festivals Dvořák became a beloved figure there like no composer since Mendelssohn. In the 1890s, this humble man, who had picked up the rudiments of music in his father's combination butcher-shop and pub, who had played the fiddle at village weddings and had sat for years among the violas in the pit of the Prague Opera House, would conquer America as well, even serving for three years as Director of the National Conservatory in New York.
Dvořák enjoyed his first American visit. Nonetheless, he was glad to go home in the spring of 1894 and reluctant to return that fall. Ultimately, however, Dvořák signed another contract with the National Conservatory, and on November 1 he was at work again. The previous spring he had heard Victor Herbert, then principal cellist at the Metropolitan Opera, play his Cello Concerto No. 2 in Brooklyn; now he began to realize a scheme that that experience had suggested. In 1865 he had written a Cello Concerto in A major, but he never bothered to orchestrate that unsatisfactory work. Moreover, Dvořák for some time had wanted to write a work for his friend Hanuš Wihan, cellist of the Bohemian Quartet and the composer's partner on a concert tour in 1892. Just as Dvořák had encouraged violinist Joseph Joachim to give him advice, to suggest and even to make revisions in the Violin Concerto of 1879, he now leaned on Wihan for technical assistance with the Cello Concerto. He was, however, less docile now, and there was some friction, particularly concerning an elaborate cadenza that Wihan added to the finale. A reconciliation was achieved easily enough, but ironically a series of misunderstandings over dates between Dvořák and the Secretary of the Philharmonic Society of London made it impossible for Wihan to give the premiere of the concerto that had meanwhile been dedicated to him. Wihan played the piece for the first time in 1899 with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg, and he later performed it on several occasions under the composer's direction.
The first movement introduces two of Dvořák's most memorable themes. The one at the beginning—low clarinet, joined by bassoons, with a somber accompaniment of violas, cellos, and basses—lends itself to a remarkable series of oblique, multi-faceted harmonizations, and the other, more lyrical, is one of the loveliest horn solos in the literature.
The Adagio begins in tranquility, but this mood is quickly broken by an orchestral outburst that introduces a quotation from one of Dvořák's own songs, now sung by the cello in its high register and with tearing intensity. The song, the first of a set composed 1887-88, is “Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), and it was a special favorite of the composer's sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová. Thirty years earlier Dvořák had been very much in love with the then sixteen-year-old Josefina, an aspiring actress to whom he gave piano lessons. The love was not returned, and Dvořák eventually married Josefina's younger sister Anna, but something of the old feeling remained, and the song intruded on the concerto when the news of Josefina's illness reached the Dvořáks on East 17th Street in New York. Josefina died on May 27, 1895, a month after the composer's return from America, and it was in her memory that Dvořák added the elegiac coda to which he did not want Wihan to add a cadenza.
For the song returns in the finale, and that coda stops the dancelike momentum. Here is what Dvořák wrote about that passage: “The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it."
He had been skeptical about writing a concerto for cello, an instrument whose mumbly low notes and nasal high ones bothered him (standards of cello-playing have risen astonishingly in the last hundred years). Now he had written the best one we have. And Brahms, his friend and benefactor, growled: "Why in the world didn't I know one could write a cello concerto like this? If I'd only known I'd have done it long ago!"
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall. This note originally appeared in the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra ©1978 and is reprinted here by permission.
More About the Music
Recordings: Gautier Capuçon, with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Virgin Classics) | Gregor Piatigorsky, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo) | Mstislav Rostropovich, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)
Reading: Dvořák, by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler (Marion Boyars) | Dvořák and his World, edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton) | Dvořák in America 1892-1895, edited by John C. Tibbetts (Amadeus) | New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life,edited by Michael Beckerman (W.W. Norton)