The Kennedy Center

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Peter Laki

Written at the end of Dvorák's three-year tenure as director of the National Conservatory in New York, the Cello Concerto reflects some of the composer's American experiences but is at the same time filled with the spirit of his beloved Bohemia where he longed to return.

          The idea of writing a cello concerto certainly had something to do with American experiences:  Dvorák was inspired by the example of his colleague at the National Conservatory, cellist-composer Victor Herbert, who performed his own Second Cello Concerto with Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic in March 1894.  As a young man, Dvorák had already written a cello concerto; however, that work was never orchestrated.  And in the case of a cello concerto, orchestration is a matter of crucial importance, since the low pitch of the instrument makes it more difficult for it to stand out against a full orchestral texture.  The 24-year-old Dvorák may not have been prepared to meet this challenge, but three decades later, the mature composer knew how to solve the problem.

          He solved it not simply by reducing the volume of the accompaniment, but by placing the solo cello into a variety of constantly changing combinations with selected wind soloists from the orchestra.  This results in a delicate, almost chamber music-like instrumental writing in which the timbre of the cello comes into full display. 

It is remarkable that despite this chamber-music quality, the concerto has a certain symphonic grandeur one doesn't find in most other Romantic cello concertos (Schumann, Saint-Saëns).  Dvorák continues the Beethoven-Brahms tradition in which solo passages (including several prominent ones for the flute) are balanced by full-fledged orchestral statements.  The orchestra's role is not restricted to mere accompaniment:  it always shares the limelight with the soloist and often even takes center stage.  That is because, clearly, this concerto is much more than a virtuoso showpiece for the soloist.  It is in many ways a dramatic, even tragic, work, from its somber opening to the unprecedented closing section of the finale.  We have a great deal of evidence to show that Dvorák was grappling with important life issues as he was writing it.  Musicologist Michael Beckerman has discussed some of these issues in a highly readable and illuminating book that every Dvorák lover would read with pleasure.*

The concerto memorializes Dvorák's sister-in-law Josefina Kaunitzová, who became seriously ill shortly after the composer had begun work on the concerto.  It is no secret that, as a young man, Dvorák was deeply in love with Josefina but their union was not to be; instead, the composer ended up marrying Josefina's sister.

In the second movement of his cello concerto, Dvorák quoted one of his own songs ("Lasst mich allein" [Let Me Be Alone], Op. 82, No. 1) which, according to leading Dvorák biographer Otakar Šourek, was a favorite song of Josefina's and its appearance here is a personal tribute.  This view is supported by the fact that this melody returns at the end of the concerto, in the part that Dvorák revised after his return to Bohemia, and after Josefina's death.  Here Dvorák made the almost unheard-of decision of inserting a wistful and elegiac slow section in the middle of a finale that has up to this point been dominated by a spirited dance melody.  What is more, the solo cello is joined here by a second solo voice coming from the concertmaster: the combination of violin and cello (high and low) creates unmistakable associations with an operatic love duet.  Precisely at the moment when one would expect a final presto to begin, the music drifts more and more into sadness.  The dramatic first theme of the opening movement is recalled, as is a variant of Josefina's song.  It is apparently only with some effort that Dvorák gathers up enough momentum for a few measures of Allegro vivo to end the concerto.




After completing his cello concerto, Dvorák asked his friend, the renowned cellist Hanuš Wihan, to add fingerings and bowing instructions to the solo part.  In addition to these, however, the cellist proposed some changes and wrote cadenzas (for the first and last movements) that the composer found impossible to accept.  Šourek believed that it was because of these differences of opinion that Wihan did not play the concerto's premiere.  New research has discovered that this was not the case: the cellist was simply not free on the day suggested by the London Philharmonic Society, which then engaged another soloist, much to Dvorák's dismay, since he had already committed himself to Wihan.  Dvorák apparently cleared the situation with his friend, was released from his promise, and worked with the new cellist, Leo Stern, intensely for several days. "I hope he will be all right," he wrote to London a few days before leaving for the premiere.

          The concert was extremely long by today's standards.  In addition to Dvorák's Eighth Symphony and five of his Biblical Songs, it also contained a performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto (with Emil Sauer) and more.  Yet the cello concerto was received with enthusiasm; Stern introduced it to several cities in Europe and the United States, and other cellists took it on as well.  Wihan finally performed the work in January 1899 at The Hague, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg.



* Michael Beckerman, New Worlds of Dvorák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.