Dvorák (1841-1904) - ’Cello Concerto
’cello is a beautiful instrument, but its place is in the orchestra and
in chamber music. As a solo instrument it isn't much good . . . I
have . . . written a ’cello concerto, but am sorry to this day that
I did so, and I never intend to write another”.
a curious enough comment - and for a would-be listener a dismaying one
- from the man who created one of the finest ’cello concertos
ever to grace a concert platform, but even more curious is that Dvo?ák
had, by this time, written not one but two ’cello concertos.
creative career had three distinct phases. A provincial education furnished
a firm foundation in the bread-and-butter musical basics. Keeping
his composing secret from all but his closest friends, untrammelled by
moderating influences (except possibly Wagner’s, though that was
hardly “moderating”), and fired by the enthusiasm and indiscipline of youth,
his juvenilia were daringly experimental. His lyrical and - at around
80 minutes - fairly discursive First ’Cello Concerto was inspired
by his love for Josefina Cermakova. Ultimately, she refused his hand
and the concerto was never fully scored. Dvo?ák married her
younger sister and, years later, Gunther Raphael prepared a drastically
abridged orchestral version.
“discovery” of folk music as a motivator, and the influence of Brahms in
particular, characterised his “conservative” period. As a maturing, increasingly
well-known composer he traded much of that radicalism for structural
soundness. If success measures wisdom, then this was indeed a wise
move. His “New World” experience triggered the third phase. Curiously,
the opening of new horizons also “closed the loop” of his career,
rekindling that original spirit of adventure, but with all the advantages
of his “conservative” period’s firm foundation - one significant reason
why Dvo?ák’s later works predominate: we get the best of both worlds.
really the ’Cello Concerto No. 2 in B minor was written during 1894-5,
towards the end of his successful stint in the States. Typically,
much of the music’s tension derives from the collision of the New World’s
young, vibrant culture and Dvo?ák’s ineffable homesickness.
However, there’s more. Learning that Josefina was seriously ill, he was
moved to refer to his song Leave Me Alone, a particular favourite
of hers. Characteristically, this reference was not arbitrary, but
woven into the fabric of his creation. Although substantially completed
in the USA, back home following Josefina’s untimely death, Dvo?ák
further reworked the concerto’s ending into a heartfelt tribute.
his then unknown first effort, this concerto’s sheer scale is unprecedented,
being 50% longer than the only comparable earlier one - that of Schumann.
Dvo?ák enlarged Schumann’s example to encompass the symphonic
conception of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which entertains its audience
for a similar duration. Brahms was impressed: “Why on Earth didn’t I know
that one could write a ’cello concerto like this? Had I known, I would
have written one long ago.” Had the experience of his Double Concerto
(1887) convinced him that the problem of balancing ’cello against
symphony orchestra was insuperable? Unbelievably - apparently - Brahms
had completely missed Dvo?ák’s supremely simple solution - when
the orchestra gets going, the ’cello doesn’t!
Dvo?ák was disinclined to dilute his arguments. His friend,
the ’cellist Hanus Wihan, tried his damnedest to secure a juicy solo cadenza.
Dvo?ák wouldn’t budge. His “cadenzas” were brief, meditative and
generally shared with orchestral soli. This entire approach is pretty
radical: a red-blooded romantic concerto that eschews the raison d’être
of red-blooded romantic concertos. Whilst following Schumann and Brahms,
Dvo?ák remained entirely his own man.
Allegro: Stygian clarinets and bassoons ooze the first subject. An
expectant crescendo ignites a productive full statement whose ferocity
is mollified for a pastoral bridge to the second subject. This succulent
tune, first given to solo horn, develops its own Terpsichorean vehemence.
The soloist’s response to the orchestral exposition is fascinating. Hacking
angrily at the first subject’s unsatisfactory gloom, the ’cello resolves
the theme into not “pastorality” but scampering folksiness. Then,
while happily accepting and elaborating the second subject, it softens
the emergent vigour. Rising fanfares usher in the development, wherein
the first subject is remoulded, eventually and ingeniously, into
the likeness of the second! Feeling sidelined the second subject, usurping
the first, initiates the reprise in a blaze of sound - a complementary
transformation. The first subject, relegated to the coda, responds
with resplendent festivity!
Adagio ma non troppo: As if Dvo?ák’s homesickness were reacting,
via a slow Slavonic Dance, to that “New World” excitement, woodwind solemnly
intone the melancholy main subject. The soloist’s sobbing passion seems
to concur, until a devastating orchestral eruption introduces the
melody of Leave Me Alone. The main theme’s return, as a chorale
for three horns, now carries the imprint of a prayer. Dvo?ák here
grants his soloist a few precious moments alone, before the music
drifts into a long sunset of such tender reminiscence that even listening
seems like intrusion.
Allegro moderato: Loins are girded: sturdy basses and horns open a
brief orchestral introduction, a device echoing the work’s beginning.
This movement feels randomly rhapsodic - yet curiously cogent. This
is because the soloist’s entry begins an ingenious, three-phase developmental
rondo, ABA-CDC-AEA. The first phase, relatively conventionally, tosses
the vigorous [A] between soloist and tutti, with [B] a lively dance episode.
In the more complex second phase, the soloist softens the robustly rhythmic
[C], easing into [D]. From ’cello and clarinet musing the screw tightens,
preparing the return of [C]. Now the softening prepares the third
phase, markedly contrasted to the first: [A] returns ppp on the
’cello, lending maximum impact to the ensuing tutti. But now, instead
of plunging into [B] the orchestra hesitates, leading luminously
to the longings of [E] where a solo violin joins the ’cello. [A] resurges
with a brassy air of finality. But, this isn’t the end! In an extended
“postlude” Dvo?ák bids farewell to Josefina: a clarinet murmurs
the first movement’s main theme and a violin Leave Me Alone. With
aching tenderness the ’cello reflects, then offers up her soul -
launching it, like a dove, to fly triumphantly into the firmament.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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