Antonín Dvořák: Cello Concerto, Op. 104, B. 191

Antonín DvořákANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): Cello Concerto, Op. 104, B. 191, in B Minor. Dvořák's Cello Concerto was written in 1894-95 for his friend, the cellist Hanuš Wihan. Wihan had asked Dvořák to write a cello concerto numerous times. However, Dvořák always refused Wihan’s requests, stating that, while the cello was a fine orchestral instrument, it was totally insufficient for a solo concerto.

Dvořák finally was inspired to write his Cello Concerto while in New York as the Director of the National Conservatory, a predecessor of today’s Juilliard School. A fellow teacher at the Conservatory, cellist/composer Victor Herbert, had premiered one of his cello concerti, in March 1894, and upon hearing it, Dvořák was inspired to fulfill Wihan’s request and to write a cello concerto of his own.

The first movement of Dvořák's Cello Concerto is in large-scale sonata form and opens with a lengthy orchestral introduction. Both themes are initially stated by the orchestra, and the soloist later expands upon them. The second movement, a lengthy and lyrical Adagio, notably features a cadenza-like section in which the solo cello, playing double stops interspersed with left-hand pizzicatos, is accompanied mainly by flutes. The finale is formally a rondo and opens with the main theme presented very quietly by the horns, then the oboes. After the solo cello presents the theme risoluto and forte, a series of varied episodes follows, the more noteworthy and memorable of which are slower and softer. One of the slower, quieter sections recalls themes from the first and second movements, reinforcing the cyclic structure of Dvořák's Cello Concerto. In another there is a memorable duet of the solo cello and the concertmaster. In a third, Dvořák pays tribute to his recently deceased sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, née Èermakova, in a slow wistful section quoting his songcycle, The Cypresses. Ultimately, as Dvořák himself stated, “the finale should close gradually with a diminuendo . . . like a breath . . . then there is a crescendo, and the last measures are taken up by the orchestra, ending stormily. That was my idea . . .”