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Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Josef Haydn
© Paul Laki

Of the three Viennese classical masters, Haydn—who otherwise had much less interest in the concerto than either Mozart or Beethoven—was the only one to write works for cello and orchestra. The most likely explanation for this is that, as Kapellmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn worked closely with many excellent instrumentalists in the prince's orchestra. Concertos were welcome additions to the programs of the twice-weekly musical “academies,” for which so many of Haydn's symphonies were written. (It should be noted that many of Haydn's early symphonies also contain extended, almost concerto-like, instrumental solos.)

The Concerto in C major, the first of Haydn's two cello concertos, was written about two decades before the D-major work. For many years, this concerto was thought to be lost; only its first two measures were known from the handwritten catalog Haydn had kept of his own works. Even more frustrating, this catalog contained not one but two almost identical incipits (opening measures) for concertos in C major. In 1961, Czech musicologist Oldřich Pulkert discovered a set of parts in Prague that corresponded to one of the two incipits. It was published and, of course, immediately taken up by cellists everywhere. As for the other C-major incipit, it could have been a simple mistake (Haydn could have notated the theme from memory and didn't remember it exactly) or a discarded variant.

On stylistic grounds, scholars have dated the C-major concerto from between 1762 and 1765; it is certainly an early work, from the first years of Haydn's tenure at Eszterháza (1761-1790). It belongs to that transitional period between Baroque and Classicism whose greatest representative, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), had a strong influence on the young Haydn. The continuity of the rhythmic pulse and the numerous identical repeats of the first movement's main theme are definitely Baroque features, while the shape of the musical gestures points to the emergence of a new style that would later be known as Classicism.

The original cello part shows that the soloist was expected to play along with the orchestra during tutti passages, reinforcing the bass line. The solo part is extremely demanding, with rapid passagework that frequently ascends to the instrument's highest register. The second-movement Adagio, in which the winds are silent, calls for an exceptionally beautiful tone, and the last movement for uncommon brilliance and stamina. Surely the first cellist of Haydn's orchestra, Joseph Weigl, must have been one of the outstanding players of his time.