The King of the Cello Repertoire

July 31, 2018

Is there any piece of music that dominates the repertoire for its instrument as much as Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto? Pianists might suggest Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, but then someone could counter that with Rachmaninoff’s Second or Beethoven’s “Emperor” or many other possibilities. No piano concerto clearly stands at the head of its class. Among other cello concertos, there are certainly advocates for Elgar’s stately, tragic work or for Schumann’s excellent example. Then there are Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev’s mighty Symphony-Concerto, Shostakovich, a couple by Haydn, many by Vivaldi…but none of them really competes with the Dvořák.

Going outside the concerto repertoire, there are of course Bach’s six suites for solo cello, but — outside the unavoidable Prelude to the first of these — they remain at least a fairly specialized taste. No solo cellist of any standing will be without the Dvořák concerto in his or her repertoire. This is not just a great concerto. It is a magnificent piece of music, worthy of being called its composer’s very best. If the competition includes the “New World” (Ninth) Symphony, the glorious Eighth Symphony, the superb late string quartets, the opera Rusalka, the Piano Quintet, the Stabat mater…that’s first prize among some extremely distinguished peers. In fact, the concerto is such a supreme masterpiece that it alone could solidify Dvořák’s place among the greatest composers. He did compose two other concertos earlier in his career, one for piano and one for violin. Both are fine, beautiful works, but they have struggled to hold a firm place in the repertoire.

On the first of the final pair of 2018 Colorado Music Festival concerts on Thursday, August 2, Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan will play the king of his instrument’s music with conductor Peter Oundjian and the CMF Festival Orchestra. It should be among the most edifying performances of the season. Because the Dvořák Cello Concerto is one of those classical works that truly nourishes the soul.

Antonín Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák in his American years

A reluctant composer

Rather amazingly, Dvořák was always skeptical of the cello as a suitable instrument for a concerto. He loved the instrument’s middle range, but wasn’t fond of the “nasal” high register or the “mumbling” lowest notes. Also, he doubted the ability of the instrument to project sufficiently above a full orchestra. Such concerns were not new. One of the criticisms of Schumann’s Cello Concerto is that he was so fearful of covering up his solo instrument that he toned down the orchestra to a fault.

Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan
Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan

But the composer had been under pressure to write a cello concerto due to the urgings of his friend, the great Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan. It was not until 1894, during his third term as Director of the National Conservatory in New York, that Dvořák finally relented and composed the concerto. It is thought that he heard performances of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto №2 and that this convinced him it was feasible. Herbert, known in the United States as a great operetta composer, was also a cellist and a teacher at the Conservatory during Dvořák’s tenure.

Unlike the other “American” works, such as the “New World” Symphony and the “American” String Quartet, the concerto is largely devoid of influences from the composer’s experience in the United States. When he began working on the piece, he devoted himself to it feverishly. There were external circumstances at work as well. He received a letter from his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, née Čermakova, informing him that she was seriously ill. The composer had been in love with Josefina before marrying her sister, and her illness affected him deeply. She died in 1895, but Dvořák had already memorialized her in the slow, wistful coda (before the brief triumphant ending) of the last movement.

Leo Stern, drawing from 1895
Leo Stern, drawing from 1895

He did dedicate the work to Wihan and intended that he should give the first performance. The cellist made some suggestions to Dvořák for “improvement,” some of which he accepted, but he resolutely refused to add the solo cadenzas Wihan wanted. In particular he did not want to disrupt the tribute to his dying sister-in-law at the end. The composer admonished his publishers that no further changes were to be made at the behest of Wihan or anyone else.

Wihan did intend to premiere the concerto. Dvořák had arranged for that premiere to take place in London, conducted by him, but Wihan had a hard contractual conflict with the date on which the London Philharmonic Society insisted, March 19, 1896. The concert had already been advertised before Dvořák could intervene, and Wihan graciously released his rights to the premiere (he did perform it publicly several times, although many performances in both Europe and the United States preceded his first). He and Dvořák remained close friends. The premiere was played by English cellist Leo Stern, whose primary claim to fame is that he was the first to play the Dvořák concerto. Stern died young, in the same year as Dvořák, 1904.

What makes it so great?

It must be remembered that the Cello Concerto comes very late in Dvořák’s output (Opus 104 out of 116) and is the work of a seasoned, disciplined composer who had long since mastered the art of orchestration. And that is one thing that contributed to its greatness, the orchestration. Unlike in Schumann’s concerto, for example, the orchestra plays a major role. The brass makes its presence felt throughout. The scoring is often grandiose (one of the composer’s favorite expression markings was “grandioso”). And yet the cello always projects as it should. The balance is never off. That is one of the wonders.

Another wonder is just how heroic it is. It is a minor-key work, but it spends much time in major keys. While the home key of B minor is often a darkly-hued one, B major (in which the two outer movements end) is both warm and bright. The opening themes of the outer movements (and the middle section of the second movement) all have the potential for tragedy, but Dvořák makes it clear from early on that the course of the concerto will be a victorious one, even when he slows things down so profoundly at the end of the finale.

The first movement is probably the most perfectly structured thing Dvořák ever wrote. But aside from that, it boasts two of the most perfect themes ever constructed. The first theme is instantly recognizable, searing itself into the memory from the moment the clarinet first plays it. Its ominous character is obviously pregnant with possibilities. But if the first theme is inspired, the second theme is miraculous. It is first played in the opening orchestral presentation by the horn. And it sounds as if it were made for that instrument to play. We can’t imagine this noble, gorgeous melody on any other.

When the solo cello enters, playing the first theme with rich multiple-stop chords, Dvořák sends another signal: this is going to be an incredibly virtuosic workout for the soloist. Later on, the cellist presents the second theme, and — miracle of miracles — this melody now sounds as wonderful on the cello as it did on the horn! And the composer knew he had a special theme on his hands. After devoting the development section entirely to many often rhapsodic presentations of the main theme, he winds up for his reprise — and he does it with the glorious second theme! Cutting the main theme entirely out of a recapitulation — especially a theme that good — was a bold decision. But it was so clearly the right one. Now the full orchestra blasts the second theme out in B major (it had previously been played in D major by the horn and cello). The solo cello then sings it forth majestically.

But the main theme is not gone. In the coda, Dvořák transforms it into a joyous march, and the movement ends with blazing trumpets.

The slow movement in G major is laid out on a substantial scale, and its main sections are also incredibly beautiful. The opening theme, like that of the first movement, is introduced by a clarinet and later taken up by the solo cellist. The movement has a stormy and passionate minor-key middle section, and the reprise is introduced by the closest thing to a cadenza in the whole concerto — a presentation of the opening theme by the soloist alone, again with full multiple-stop chords.

For the finale, Dvořák introduces a triangle — the only percussion instrument he employs besides timpani. The movement is in the form of a rondo, and its main theme is a march. Yes, it is in a minor key and sounds like it might introduce some epic battle, but the presence of the triangle makes us wonder if it is really all that threatening. Indeed it is not, and the contrasting episodes are all in major keys. One of the first contrasting themes has a hammering long-short rhythm. The last of these episodes is especially rapturous, and Dvořák even asks the orchestra’s concertmaster for a short, but thrilling violin solo.

The movement seems as if it is going to end joyously, but then the composer introduces the sweet and tender tribute to his sister-in-law. It is almost a series of codas rather than a single coda. He quotes his own song “Leave Me Alone” (“Kéž duch můj sám”), which had been one of Josefina’s favorites. And then, to put a fine point on it, he brings back the first movement’s main theme, now played as a gentle lullaby, presented by the soloist and the winds against seemingly distant trumpet calls. After such a workout, the soloist’s last note is a soaring conclusion to this wistful tribute. And then Dvořák has the orchestra quickly build up to another triumphant exclamation point.

Johannes Brahms had written his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in 1887, eight years before Dvořák’s work. Brahms, who had long been a mentor and champion for the Czech composer, reportedly said upon hearing it, “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!” Johannes, it was possible, but probably only once. The creation of this concerto was a singular moment of genius, of inspiration that can’t be repeated, by its composer or by anyone else. That is why it remains king.

CMF Artistic Advisor Peter Oundjian
CMF Artistic Advisor Peter Oundjian

Also on the final concerts

Oundjian pairs Hakhnazaryan’s performance of “the king” with another immortal masterpiece composed in the United States, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 and among its composer’s final works. The season finale on Saturday, featuring the festival’s favorite soloist, pianist Olga Kern, is unusually structured, with four all-American works that are all in one movement and last 20 minutes or less. Kern plays Gershwin’s beloved one-movement “jazz” concerto Rhapsody in Blue, and the orchestra also plays his symphonic showpiece “An American in Paris.” The Symphony №1 in One Movement by Samuel Barber, a composer well-represented at this summer’s festival, is heard before the Gershwin works. Both concerts begin with a piece by Leonard Bernstein, the festival’s central figure. The Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free open Thursday’s program while the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, heard on last week’s “Fresh Friday” concert, are given a reprise to open Saturday’s finale.

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