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Dvorak Cello Concerto Program Notes

Antonin Dvorak’s cello concerto involves a cast of several characters. First, we should consider Jeanette Thurber, a Paris-trained American violinist who married a New York wholesale grocer. Building a conservatory along European lines, she aimed to recruit a top-level composer who could lead American classical music towards a distinctly American style, directing a new National Conservatory. She invited Dvorak, who was settling into a faculty position in Prague, to be that leader. He was disinclined, but Mrs. Thurber’s offer was $15,000 annually (a princely sum in 1891, and 25 times his Prague salary). Dvorak’s wife, Anna, along with Dvorak’s children, overruled Antonin, and they traveled forthwith to New York. While in New York he became acquainted with African American musicians (who, along with women, were educated at the conservatory), and encouraged American composers to compose music incorporating spirituals and music of Native Americans. With summers free, he composed seven works, including the New World Symphony, the Te Deum, and finally, this concerto.

Dvorak’s teaching staff of talented Americans included the composer Victor Herbert, an Irish-born cellist (formerly principal of the Metropolitan Opera), and also a conductor: Herbert would soon leave New York temporarily to direct the Pittsburgh Symphony. Before doing so, he premiered his second cello concerto, soloing with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Anton Seidl. (These days, Herbert is better known for his light music, with The March of the Toys from Babes in Toyland a perennial favorite.)

Before hearing Herbert’s concerto, Dvorak was resistant to composing a cello concerto, probably fearing a Romantic-era orchestra’s lower brass would overwhelm the soloist. Hearing Herbert convinced him to begin the concerto.

Back in Bohemia, Dvorak had a friend, Prof. Hanuš Wihan, who had campaigned for a concerto from Dvorak for several years, premiering other works Dvorak wrote for him. Wihan was a significant Czech musician, collaborating with Dvorak and Smetana, and was a co-founder of the Bohemian quartet along with Joseph Suk. Dvorak dedicated the concerto to Wihan.

The final member of the cast of characters is Dvorak’s friend, retired actress Josefa Čermáková. They’d become friends in the Interim Theatre in Prague, where he was playing viola in the theatre orchestra there, conducted by Smetana, after abandoning law studies. Their relationship never developed, and she, a leading lady, married a Count. He, on the other hand, married her sister, Anna, but maintained a long friendship with Josefa. While composing the concerto in America, he received word that Josefa was ill, and interrupted the structure of the slow movement to include the melody of a lied (song) he’d composed when they were young (Op. 82, No. 1, “Leave Me Alone”). Returning Bohemia, he learned of Josefa’s passing, and altered the finale. Although the concerto’s very end still boisterous and optimistic, he preceded the coda with a wistful musical detour.  

Full name: Antonín Leopold Dvořák

Born: September 8, 1841, Nelahozeves, Czech Republic
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague, Czech Republic