Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

I’ve started writing programme notes for the amateur orchestra I play in. They’re only going to be seen by the 50 or so people that buy the programme, so I thought I would share them here, even though they aren’t really related to music travel.

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191 – Antonín Dvořák
1 Allegro
2 Adagio ma non troppo
3 Allegro moderato

In September 1892, Antonín Dvořák, with his wife and children, embarked on the eleven day journey from Prague to New York, where he took up the position of Artistic Director of the American National Conservatory of Music. It had been a hard-fought choice, but there was financial incentive enough to tempt Dvořák away from his home and friends – his salary in New York was 25 times the salary he received at the Prague Conservatory.

Dvořák’s friend cellist Hanuš Wihan had long been badgering him to write a cello concerto for him, but Dvořák had refused. He had attempted a cello concerto nearly 30 years previously, but had given up because of difficulties balancing the solo line against the orchestra. Whilst teaching at the National Conservatory, Dvořák heard the Second Cello Concert of his fellow teacher Victor Herbert (himself a cellist: he had led the cello section in the premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony in 1893). Herbert’s concerto convinced Dvořák that the cello was in fact suitable as a solo instrument.

The piece is dedicated to Wihan but was premiered in 1896 by English cellist Leo Stern, conducted by the composer at the Queen’s Hall at the top of Regent’s Street in London. It has been popular and highly-regarded ever since. Brahms, a friend and champion of Dvořák’s work,  said of the piece “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!”

The first movement opens with a long introduction, allowing the orchestra to use full forces and with solos dotted around the winds, introducing melodies that the cello will claim and develop throughout the movement. The slow middle movement quotes one of Dvořák’s own songs, “Leave me alone”. This song was a favourite of his sister-in-law Josefina, who he discovered was gravely ill whilst composing the piece. The final movement begins with a martial figure, and strident orchestral sections contrast against melodic passages from cello with winds, developing into virtuosic statements from our soloist. As the piece draws to a close, again we hear a quote from “Leave me alone”, this lyrical moment added by Dvořák mourning the death of Josefina. The piece ends with a triumphal orchestral tutti.


There is one place I have written about that is related to this piece – it was premiered at the Queen’s Hall in London. For more information, see my post Royal Albert Hall. In my research for these programme notes I discovered that the cello that the Dvorak Concerto was premiered by Leon Stern playing the “General Kyd” Stradivarius cello (lots of Stradivarius instruments have names) and that instrument is now played by the Principal Cello of the LA Philharmonic. Weird to think that the instrument lasted longer than the building!


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