The Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191, is the last solo concerto by Antonín Dvo?ák. It was written in 1894-95 for his friend, the cellist Hanu? Wihan, but was premiered by the English cellist Leo Stern.
The piece is scored for a full romantic orchestra (with the exception of a 4th horn), containing two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle (last movement only), and strings, and is in the standard three-movement concerto format:
Total duration: approximately 40 minutes.
In 1865, early in his career, Dvo?ák started a Cello Concerto in A major (B. 10). The piece was written for Ludevít Peer, whom he knew well from the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in which they both played. He handed the cello score (with piano accompaniment) over to Peer for review but neither bothered to finish the piece. It was recovered from his estate in 1925.
Hanu? Wihan, among others, had asked for a cello concerto for quite some time, but Dvo?ák always refused, stating that the cello was a fine orchestral instrument but totally insufficient for a solo concerto. According to Josef Michl, Dvo?ák was fond of the middle register, but complained about a nasal high register and a mumbling bass. In a letter to a friend, Dvo?ák wrote that he himself was probably most surprised by his decision to write a cello concerto despite these long held reservations.
Dvo?ák wrote the concerto while in New York City for his third term as the Director of the National Conservatory. In 1894 one of the teachers at the Conservatory, Victor Herbert, also a composer, finished his Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, and premiered it in a series of concerts, commencing on 9 March. Dvo?ák heard at least two performances of the piece and was inspired to fulfill Wihan's request in composing a cello concerto of his own. Herbert had been principal cellist in the orchestra that premiered Dvo?ák's "New World" Symphony on 16 December 1893. Herbert's middle movement was in B minor, which may have inspired Dvo?ák to write his concerto in the same key. It was started on 8 November 1894 and completed on 9 February 1895.
After seeing the score, Hanu? Wihan made various suggestions for improvement, including two cadenzas, one at the end of the third movement. But Dvo?ák accepted only a few minor changes and neither of the cadenzas. The third movement was a tribute to his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, née ?ermakova, who had written him a letter in November 1894 saying she was seriously ill. Specifically, the slow, wistful section, before the triumphant ending, quotes his song "Leave Me Alone (Ké? duch m?j sám)", Op. 82, B.157, No. 1, a favorite of hers. She died in May 1895, after which the concerto was further revised.
Dvo?ák wrote to his publishers:
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.
The finale, he wrote, 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, and from it I cannot recede".
Hanu? Wihan first privately performed the concerto with the composer in Lu?any in September 1895. Although he had rejected most of Wihan's suggested changes, Dvo?ák still very much wanted Wihan to premiere the work publicly and had promised him that role. An account of the sequence of events whereby it did not happen is given by Clapham. Francesco Berger, Secretary of the London Philharmonic Society, wrote to Dvo?ák in November 1895 to invite him to conduct a concert of some of his works in London. Dvo?ák agreed and proposed to conduct the premiere of his Cello Concerto with Wihan as soloist. Berger proposed the date 19 March 1896, but that date was not convenient for Wihan (it may have clashed with concert dates for the Bohemian Quartet, to which Wihan was already contracted). The Philharmonic Society insisted on the date and hired the English cellist Leo Stern without consulting Dvo?ák. The composer then at first refused to come for the concert. "Berger was horrified and greatly embarrassed," as the concert had already been advertised. Clapham conjectures that Wihan released Dvo?ák from his promise. Stern traveled to Prague to prepare his performance under Dvo?ák's supervision. By early March, all was agreed, and the premiere took place on 19 March in Queen's Hall, London, with Dvo?ák conducting. The cello played by Stern was the 1684 "General Kyd", one of only about 60 cellos made by Stradivarius.
After the London performance, Stern again played the solo part in what may have been the second public performance, in Prague on 11 April 1896, and later again in London. In December 1896 and during 1897-1898 the concerto was performed by a few cellists and conductors in England and the United States, including Stern in Chicago in January 1897. Wihan went on to perform the concerto with great success, first in January 1899 at The Hague, and later for the first time under Dvo?ák's baton in Budapest on 20 December 1899. Despite there having been so many public performances before Wihan's first, he and Dvo?ák remained firm friends.
The concerto was published in 1896 by N. Simrock, Berlin.
The first movement starts softly, with the clarinets introducing the theme. The full orchestra later plays the theme in a grandioso manner, leading to a horn solo which introduces the secondary, lyrical theme. The first theme is played throughout the movement and during the last part of the third movement, giving the concerto a cyclic structure. The solo cello begins with a quasi improvisando section stating the theme in B major followed by triple-stopped chords. The cello then plays the theme again in E major. This concerto requires a lot of technical ability, especially in the coda, where the cello plays octaves and many double stops. After the resolution by the solo cello, there is a modulation in which the winds play an E-flat minor chord, changing the key. The solo cello ends with trills on a high B. The movement ends tutti with the restatement of the first theme marked grandioso and fortissimo.
Following this opening essay is the lengthy Adagio, a lyrical movement which features a cadenza-like section which is accompanied mainly by flutes. The cello plays double stops accompanied by left-hand pizzicato on open strings. The movement ends with the cello playing harmonics very quietly.
The final movement is formally a rondo. It opens with the horn playing the main theme quietly. A gradual crescendo leads into a dramatic woodwinds and strings section. The solo cello enters by playing the modified main theme loudly which is marked risoluto. The orchestra plays the new modified theme again. Then the cello enters with a melody played on the A string played with thirty-second notes on the D string. This fast section leads into a section marked poco meno mosso, dolce, and piano. A crescendo and accelerando leads into a fast arpeggio played in sixteenth-note triplets. A fast scale leads into a loud tutti section presenting new material. The cello enters and a gradual decrescendo to another restatement of the theme marked piano. This is followed by a contrasting, loud restatement of the theme played by woodwinds accompanied by strings and brass. This is followed by a moderato section in C major and eventually meno mosso which slowly modulates from A major to C♯ major to B♭ major and finally goes to the original tempo in B major. This is followed by another quiet and slow section which uses material from the first movement and second movement. The concerto ends allegro vivo presented by full orchestra.
Dvo?ák's friend and mentor Johannes Brahms had written a double concerto for violin and cello in 1887, eight years before Dvo?ák's cello concerto. He corrected the proofs of Dvo?ák's concerto for the composer and hence he knew the work intimately from the score. In 1896, Robert Hausmann had played it at his home with Brahms' piano accompaniment, and Brahms is reported as saying: "If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!" On 7 March 1897, Brahms heard Hugo Becker's performance of the piece in a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he said to his friend Gänsbacher before the concert: "Today you will hear a real piece, a male piece!"
Dvo?ák's original score, before he accepted a few of the numerous changes suggested by Hanu? Wihan, has been described as "much more musical", and this version has been performed from time to time. Some of Dvo?ák's music written in America, such as the American String Quartet, written in Spillville, Iowa, and the New World Symphony, was notably influenced by the American environment, specifically pentatonic scales used in African-American and Native American music. For the Cello Concerto such influence is less clear. One author suggests that there was little American influence on the concerto. Another author tells a story that one day when Dvo?ák was in New York but not at the Conservatory, said to be ill, a visitor to his home found him there composing. "His only illness was a fever of composition ... The remains of many past meals were strewn around the room, where he had been barricaded, probably for several days." Although the time is not specified, it might be understandable that in the later part of his sojourn at the Conservatory, when his salary had been cut and still not paid regularly, Dvo?ák could have felt less obligation to his duties.
Among all cello concertos, Dvo?ák's has been called "supreme," "the greatest", and the "king." But other concertos have advocates. There are many compositions for cello and orchestra by various composers, but there are none, for example, by J. S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms (not counting Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto or Brahms' "Double").
The concerto has been recorded by nearly every well-known cellist. Notable recordings include performances by Pablo Casals, Emanuel Feuermann, Pierre Fournier, Gregor Piatigorsky, Jacqueline du Pre, Bernard Greenhouse, Leonard Rose, Johannes Moser, Truls Mork, Mischa Maisky, and Steven Isserlis. Yo-Yo Ma recorded Dvo?ák's cello concerto three times, in 1986, 1995, and 2017. Mstislav Rostropovich made four commercial recordings on western labels (with Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic for EMI, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon; with Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for EMI; and with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Erato). Janos Starker also recorded the work three times: with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Walter Susskind for Angel/EMI, with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra for Mercury, and with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor Red Seal.