Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B-minor, Op. 104, B. 191

by Max Derrickson

Cello Concerto in B-minor, Op. 104, B. 191
1. Allegro
2. Adagio, ma non troppo
3. Finale: Allegro moderato – Andante – Allegro vivo

Antonin Dvořák
(Born near Prague, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) in 1841; died in Prague in 1904)
In 1892, the American philanthropist Jeanette Thurber persuaded the Czech composer, Antonin Dvořák, to come to America for three years and head her newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City.  The idea was to foster grassroots classical music training and to help grow a Nationalist American music – and importantly, the Conservatory was to be open to all races.  Within a year of his appointment to this post, Dvořák was inspired to begin writing four new works: Symphony in E-Minor “from the New World,” his “American” String Quartet No. 12, the fantastic String Quintet No. 3, Op. 97, and lastly his exquisite Cello Concerto.  All of these works are masterpieces in their own right, but that they were written during Dvořák’s American tenure make them particularly special to Americans.

Inspired by having heard the Concerto for Cello by Victor Herbert’s (the composer of Babes in Toyland fame), Dvořák’s Cello Concerto was the last of his “American” group.  It was completed in 1895 at the end of his three-year contract, and with it he hoped to persuade Mrs. Thurber to end her contractual bidding.  Though Thurber wished to extend Dvořák’s contract [. . .]  The Concerto is certainly brilliant, and it is filled with beautiful themes as are his other American masterpieces.  [. . .] Whereas before Dvořák’s masterpiece the cello had found no prominent place in the orchestral repertoire as a soloist, this Concerto would forever change that.  It so impressed Brahms (Dvořák’s friend and supporter), that he remarked half-peevishly, [. . .]

Though Dvořák essentially wrote all of these four of his great American works on US soil, they are nonetheless inspired by Dvořák’s now-legendary homesickness, [. . .] “Kéž duch můj sám” (Leave me alone), the first of his Four Songs, op. 82.  It was a song that was adored by Josefina Kaunitzová, the first love of Dvořák’s life back in Bohemia.  When Dvořák learned that she was very ill he incorporated the song into his Cello Concerto as a tribute to her.  It works wonderfully, if melancholically, [. . .]

The last movement does something that very few multi-movement works ever do – its main theme is also another one of Dvořák’s most unforgettable themes.  The Concerto originally ended with a headlong and spirited rush [. . .]  It perhaps makes the Concerto even better for its departure from convention, and without any doubts, the quality of the work and its imaginative solo writing launched the cello’s concerto “career” in the repertoire.