Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-95) Antonín Dvořák (Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841 – Prague, 1904)
Written at the end of Dvořák’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: Dvořák 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, Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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). Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák lover would read with pleasure.*
The concerto memorializes Dvořák’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, Dvořák 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, Dvořák quoted one of his own songs (“Lasst mich allein” [Let Me Be Alone], Op. 82, No.1) which, according to leading Dvořák 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 Dvořák revised after his return to Bohemia, and after Josefina’s death. Here Dvořák 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 Dvořák gathers up enough momentum for a few measures of Allegro vivo to end the concerto.
After completing his cello concerto, Dvořák 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 Dvořák’s dismay, since he had already committed himself to Wihan. Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World" (1893)
The credit for bringing Dvořák to the United States belongs to Jeanette M. Thurber (1850-1946), wife of a wealthy New York businessman. Mrs. Thurber was one of those dedicated philanthropists to whom the musical life of this country has always owed so much. In 1885-86, she founded both the National Conservatory of Music and the American Opera Company. One of her greatest achievements was a scholarship program for minority students, which enabled many Blacks and Native Americans to become professional musicians. Another was to persuade Antonín Dvořák to come to the United States from his native Bohemia and become the director of the Conservatory.
After a long round of negotations, Dvořák arrived in the United States in 1892, for what would be a stay of three years. He was accompanied by his wife, two of his six children, and a secretary. His duties at the Conservatory were not very onerous. He had to teach composition three mornings a week and conduct the student orchestra on two afternoons. This schedule left him enough time for conducting at public concerts as well as composing.
Mrs. Thurber later claimed it was at her suggestion that Dvořák first started to work on his Symphony in E minor. As she recollected,
"He used to be particularly homesick on steamer days when he read the shipping news in the Herald. Thoughts of home often moved him to tears. On one of these days I suggested that he write a symphony embodying his experiences and feelings in America—a suggestion which he promptly adopted."
This prompting would hardly have sufficed, had Dvořák himself not felt ready to ‟embark” on a new symphony. But embark he did, and when the score was finished the next spring, he made the following inscription on the last page of the manuscript: ‟Praise God! Completed 24th May 1893 at 9 o'clock in the morning. The children have arrived at Southampton (a cable came at 1:33 p.m.).” The four children Dvořák had left behind joined their parents in New York a few days later. Thus, both the beginning and the end of this symphony's composition seem to be connected with ships leaving and arriving.
Much ink has been spilled over the question as to whether the E-minor Symphony incorporates any melodies Dvořák heard in the United States, and whether the symphony is ‟American” or ‟Czech” in character. Dvořák’s interest in both Negro spirituals and American Indian music was evident, but he actually knew very little about the latter and, as far as the former was concerned, relied mainly on a single source of information. Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American student at the Conservatory, who later became a noted composer and singer, performed many spirituals (and also Stephen Foster songs) for Dvořák, who was very impressed but his knowledge of American musical traditions must have remained limited. The composer did not claim to have used any original melodies, trying instead to ‟reproduce their spirit,” as he put it in an interview published three days before the symphony's premiere.
We will understand what Dvořák meant by this if we compare the famous English horn solo from the symphony's slow movement with the spiritual ‟Steal Away,” which was propably among the songs Dvořák had heard from Burleigh. Many years later, H.C. Colles asked Burleigh to sing to him the songs he had sung to Dvořák, and noted that ‟the sound of the English horn resembled quite closely the quality of Burleigh’s voice.” Both melodies share the same rhythmic patterns and the same pentatonic scale. It is no wonder that Dvořák’s melody was subsequently adopted as a spiritual in its own right under the title ‟Goin’ Home,” with words by one of Dvorák’s New York students, William Arms Fisher. Several other melodies in the symphony have similar songlike shapes, suggesting folk inspiration. One instance where a possible model has been identified is the first movement's second theme, which is strongly reminiscent of the spiritual ‟Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Another link between the ‟New World” Symphony and the New World has to do with an aborted opera project based on The Song of Hiawatha. It was another one of Mrs. Thurber's suggestions that Dvořák write an opera on Longfellow's poem, with which he had long been familiar, having read it in Czech translation 30 years before. The opera never quite got off the ground, but it has recently been shown that the slow movement was conceived with Minnehaha’s Forest Funeral from Hiawatha in mind. Additionally, the Scherzo was inspired by the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis.
Discussions of the ethnic background of Dvořák’s themes should not, however, divert the attention from other aspects of this symphony that are at least equally compelling. For beautiful melodies alone, whatever their provenance may be, do not a symphony make. In his Ninth, Dvořák proved not only his supreme melodic gifts, but also his mastery in organizing his melodies into coherent and well-balanced musical structures.
The opening horn theme of the first-movement Allegro molto, already hinted at the preceding slow introduction, serves as a unifying gesture that returns in each of the symphony's movements. In the second-movement Largo, it appears at the climactic point in the faster middle section, shortly before the return of the English horn solo. In the Scherzo, it is heard between the Scherzo proper and the Trio; this time, the energetic brass theme is transformed into a lyrical melody played by the cellos and the violas. Between the trio and the recapitulation of the Scherzo, the theme resumes its original character. The same melody can also be found in the finale shortly before the end, in a coda that incorporates quotations from the second and third movements as well. The ending of the symphony, then, combines the main themes from all four movements in a magnificent synthesis.