Program Notes

Concerto No. 1 in C major for Cello and Orchestra, H.VIIb:1

BORN: March 31, 1732. Rohrau­ on‑the‑Leitha, Lower Austria
DIED: May 31, 1809, Vienna

COMPOSED/PREMIERED: Between 1761 and 1765, and most likely first played by Joseph Franz Weigl, solo cellist of the Esterházy orchestra. Lost for nearly two hundred years, it was rediscovered in Czechoslovakia in 1961 and had its first performance in modern times on May 19, 1962, in Prague, when it was played by Miloš Sádlo with Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Radio Symphony

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings with harpsichord   

DURATION: About 24 mins

For years, there was only one Haydn cello concerto, a lyrically expansive work in D major, whose authenticity was questioned for a time but which is undoubtedly genuine and was composed in 1783. We also knew that Haydn had written an earlier Cello Concerto in C major. The information came from a "Draft Catalogue" of his own works that the composer began around 1765—and from the disarmingly titled "List of all the compositions which I can at present remember having composed from my eighteenth until my seventy‑third year," assembled in old age with the help of his secretary/copyist Johann Elssler. But of the music itself for this C major Concerto there was no trace, and the work was in effect given up for lost.

Then, in 1961, the Czech musicologist Oldrich Pulkert discovered a good eighteenth‑century copy of the missing Concerto in the Radenín collection at the Prague National Museum. Both of Haydn's catalogues give the opening bars of the works in musical notation, so the identity was easy to establish. What cannot be precisely established is the date of composition, but stylistic criteria as well as the work's placement in the “Draft Catalog” strongly suggest that it dates to the beginning of Haydn's Esterházy years.

Even if we assume the latest possible date of 1765 for the C major Cello Concerto, we are placing the work only fifteen years after the death of J.S. Bach and six years after that of Handel (and Telemann was still alive and writing). No wonder then that so much Baroque style is still alive in this vibrant composition. The first movement is sturdy, confident music, written with a wonderfully developed sense for what the instrument can do. The Adagio, in which the oboes and horns are silent, is a rapt and lovely aria, and it shows that Haydn's pleasure in odd phrase lengths and other rhythmic surprises was part of his musical personality from the beginning. But it is the finale, a breathlessly excited and very quick Allegro, that is most captivating and original. The music is delightful in detail and masterful in design, and it makes for an ebullient close.

—Michael Steinberg

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.

(January 2018)

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