Cello Concerto

Antonín Dvořák

Cello Concerto in B minor

B191, Op. 104

About this work

Opus 104 was Dvorák's second and final attempt at writing a cello concerto. The first, a 50-minute work in A major, was written very early in his career (1865), when his style was still markedly derived from those of his models -- of which Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert are most notable. He had also recently encountered the music of Richard Wagner, which perhaps helps to explain the grand scale of the work. The resulting effort was not very satisfactory to the composer, and Dvorák never bothered to orchestrate it; he would not attempt to write another (the work at hand) until thirty years later, after he had written all nine of his symphonies (not to mention numerous operatic, choral, orchestral, chamber, piano, and vocal works). Upon reading through the finished product, completed in February 1895, Dvorák's colleague and friend, Brahms, is said to have remarked, "Why on earth didn't I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? Had I known, I would have written one long ago."

The first performance was given in 1896 in London under Dvorák's own direction, with Leo Stern as the soloist. The cellist was to have been Hanus Wihan (a close friend of the composer, to whom the work was dedicated), but there were misunderstandings surrounding Wihan's suggested revisions (including the addition of a last-movement cadenza) to the publisher without the composer's consent. Wihan did eventually perform the work, as did many other artists; the concerto has retained a solid place in the modern repertory.

Although the concerto's solo part is demanding, the work is by no means a bravura showpiece. Instead, the orchestra and soloist form an integral whole; Dvorák's refusal to accept Wihan's somewhat flashy revisions to the solo part show that he was determined to make the piece much more than a vehicle for virtuosity. Throughout the work there is a freshness of invention and sense of inevitable direction that betrays nothing of the thorough and painstaking revisions Dvorák himself undertook; it seems instead to have flowed effortlessly from the composer's pen.

The first movement (Allegro) is constructed around two main themes, the first of which (in B minor) is surprisingly brief, and the second of which (largely pentatonic, stated by solo horn), was one of the composer's personal favorites. The passing of these ideas back and forth between the soloist and orchestra allows for substantial thematic development; the first, brief theme is given substantially more weight in the eventual recapitulation.

In contrast to the dynamic first movement, the second (Adagio ma non troppo) opens with a more peaceful theme in G major. A middle section in G minor incorporates the melody from Dvorák's own song, "Leave me alone" -- a favorite tune of his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, who had taken ill during the concerto's composition. Dvorák was very devoted to her, and her death not long after his return home would cause him to revise the end of the work to include the same song in a lengthy epilogue. The finale (Allegro moderato) is an energetic rondo, followed by an epilogue which recalls the opening of the first movement, as well as the song mentioned above.