Cello Concerto in B Minor, op. 104

            Completed in 1895, Dvořák’s cello concerto (actually his second for that instrument, but the first is an early work not nearly as popular as the second) was the last concerto that he composed.   The concerto was not one of his favorite genres, notwithstanding his own ability as a public performer.   The Violin Concerto in A Minor and this cello concerto are concert favorites these days, but the few other concertos—or concerto-like—compositions play a minor rôle in his oeuvre.  This is somewhat surprising, considering that Dvořák was a prolific composer, who much more than most other important composers, made significant contributions to almost every musical genre.

            It would be a mistake to consign him primarily to the category of “nationalist” composers, an important conceptual tool in understanding the nature of nineteenth-century European art music.  To be sure, he clearly thought of himself as a champion of Czech music, and he incorporated significant Czech musical, literary, and historical elements into his works.   His Slavonic Rhapsodies, tone poems, operas, and songs—the list goes on and on—all are heavily infused with Czech melodies, linguistic inflections and characteristic rhythms, and national legends and stories.   And it must be admitted, these essential elements of his artistic voice are near the core of his attractiveness to audiences worldwide—not just in his homeland.  Yet, to focus inordinately on these elements would miss the mark in understanding the most important aspect of the nature of his music. 

            In short, Dvořák was a clear adherent of the artistic thinking of those composers of the nineteenth century who saw a fecund outlook for the tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (and later, Mendelssohn) in the fundamental way of composing.  That is, an approach that emphasized classical forms and designs, integrated development of musical ideas, and in general, a restrained and balanced expression that placed strong emphasis on music as an abstract art.   Wagner, Lizst, and others embraced an exuberant style that emphasized exaggerated emotions, new forms, asymmetries, and motivic fragmentation.  Not so for Brahms, Dvořák, and other musical conservatives.  They stuck to modern reinterpretations of doing things the old-fashioned ways, and in doing so, created marvelous works that stand equally the test of time with the works of the darlings of those who posit, “Change is good.”

            As most folks know, Dvořák spent most of the years from 1892 to 1895 in the United States, during which time several important works were composed, including his “New World” Symphony and the Cello Concerto in B Minor.  Notwithstanding the conditions of its creation, there is nothing of the “new world” in this piece.   It was composed for a friend, the important Czech cellist, Hanuš Wihan, who gave Dvořák pointers during its final preparation.   One will hear the traditional three movements of a concerto, including a long orchestral exposition before the soloist enters.   Of interest in the elegiac second movement is a quotation of a song by Dvořák that references his sister-in-law who was ill at the time, and soon passed away.  He went on to insert the tune in the final movement, as well.   In the last movement the tune is played by a solo violin.   This marvelous concerto well deserved its popularity and reputation over the years, for it is a nigh perfect example of Dvořák’s ability to meld virtuosic challenges to the soloist (and you will be well able to spot them), his solid mastery of orchestral construction—like his champion, Brahms--and his innate melodic gifts.  As one wag once said:  [he seemed to just] “pull melodies out of his sleeve.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan