Cello Concerto in B Minor


When was it composed?

Dvořák composed the work during his last year as director of the National Conservatory of American Music in New York City.  He started work on the piece on November 8, 1894 and completed it on February 9 1895. The composer returned to his home in Bohemia several months afterwards.


When was it premiered?

That’s a complicated question.  Dvorak wrote the piece at the urging of his friend the cellist Hanuš Wihan, who performed it privately for the composer at his home in Bohemia.  Dvorak had given Wihan his promise that he would be the one to give the first public performance.


In November 1895 Francesco Berger, the Secretary of the London Philharmonic Society wrote the composer inviting him to conduct a concert of his works in London.  Dvořák agreed and proposed to conduct the premiere of the Concerto with Wihan as soloist. The date chosen and advertised was March 19, 1896.  Unfortunately Wihan was contracted elsewhere so the Philharmonic Society hired English cellist Leo Stern without telling Dvořák.  The composer initially refused to conduct but Wihan released him from his promise; Dvořák accepted Stern and helped him prepare for the performance.  The work premiered on March 19 1896 at Queen’s Hall, London with Dvořák conducting and Stern as soloist.


Wihan finally performed the Concerto in January 1899 at The Hague, and later for the first time under Dvořák’s baton in Budapest on December 20 1899.


What instruments does the composer use?

Solo: cello
Orchestra: 2 flutes, 2 oboe, 2 clarinet, 2 bassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, triangle, strings.


How long is the piece?

Approximately 40 minutes.


Is there a reason Dvořák only wrote one piece for solo cello?

He had a particular antipathy to the instrument and openly stated that the cello was a fine orchestral instrument but totally unsuitable for a solo concerto.  He was fond of its middle register, but its “nasal high register and mumbling bass” irritated him.


So what changed his mind?

The urging of his friend Hanuš Wihan and performances in March of 1894 of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor caused a change of heart.  Herbert was a teaching colleague of Dvořák’s at the National Conservatory of Music of America as well as a well-known composer and cellist and his work showed Dvořák the instrument’s possibilities.


What influence did Hanuš Wihan have on the piece?

After he saw the score Wihan suggested changes including a cadenza at the end of the third movement. Dvořák rejected most of them particularly the change to the third movement.  He had composed it as a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefína Čermáková, who was seriously ill at the time. The melancholy passage before the triumphant ending quotes her favourite of his songs, Leave Me Alone (Kéž duch můj sám).


Josefina died in May of 1895 and though changes were made to the piece Dvořák was adamant in a letter to his publishers that the ending be left as it was.


“I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out”.


He wanted the finale to 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, and from it I cannot recede”.


Are there any recordings available?

The Cello Concerto is considered one of the great pieces of the solo cello repertoire and has been recorded by almost all the great cellists since recording began.  A search of any of the audio sites will reveal a wealth of choices.  A further search on YouTube will give you a good number of versions by many of the stars of the cello world.


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