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Dvorák (1841-1904) - ’Cello Concerto

“The ’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”

That’s 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. 

Dvo?ák’s 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. 

Dvo?ák’s “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. 

What is 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. 

Discounting 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

The symphonically-inclined 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. 

1. 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! 

2. 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. 

3. 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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