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Dvorak & Rostropovich: A First

The MHS Review 239 Vol.3, no. 5 • May 7, 1979

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David M. Greene

Dvorak's attitude toward the cello was not a friendly one: he said bluntly that he did not consider it a solo instrument, though he seems not to have provided his reasons for this odd conclusion.


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As you perfectly well know, music libraries do not overflow with cello concerti. Beautiful as the instrument may sound to your ears or mine. it was slow to catch on, except as a means of upholding the bass line, and cello concerti came late. The first were, apparently, those written by Giuseppe Jacchini around 1700, and there followed others by Vivaldi, Leo, Filtz, Monn, Emanuel Bach, Joseph Haydn, and a few others, though it is probably right to say that the "standard" repertoire begins with Boc­cherini in the late decades of the same century. The first fifty years of the next brought little more of lasting interest. One can think only of Schumann's single late example, and that is hardly his greatest work. In fact, the next Big Name to turn out a cello concerto seems to have been none other than Antonin Dvorak. A struggling neophyte of twenty-four, he produced it in 1865. It was not, however, "our" concerto, but a work in A minor, which, like much he wrote in that period, he quickly rejected; it did not turn up again until about fifty years ago, when it was published in a somewhat dubious edition. I've never heard a note of it nor encountered a recording.

Dvorak's attitude toward the cello was not a friendly one: he said bluntly that he did not consider it a solo instrument, though he seems not to have provided his reasons for this odd conclusion. In fact he said this after producing the B minor work, but history suggests that--at least when he began it--he had been convinced otherwise. One thing that seems to have persuaded him was a concert tour he took through what is now Czechoslovakia early in 1892, a few months before he moved (temporarily) to the United States. His traveling companions were the violinist Lachner and Hanus Wihan, founder and cellist of the Bohemian String Quartet.

Dvorak seems particularly to have been taken with the playing of Wihan, who premiered the "Dumky" trio with him and was the dedicatee of the Op. 94 rondo and of the concerto. Meanwhile, Dvorak had beat out Sibelius for the directorship of the new National Conservatory in New York, the brainchild of Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the philanthropic wife of a successful wholesale grocer, who was offering an annual salary of fifteen thousand pre-inflation American dollars. Despite a disinclination toward just about everything else the venture involved, Dvorak sailed later in 1892 and stayed for two years, dividing his time between New York and the Czech settlement in Spillville, Iowa.

While in New York, he attended concerts of the Philharmonic. One such concert took place on March 10, 1894. The feature attraction was a new cello concerto written and performed by the orchestra's first cellist. A virtuoso player, educated in Stuttgart, and later conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, this gent was a rotund, mustachioed native of Dublin. His grandfather was Samuel Lover. by profession a painter, but one of the most popular novelists, playwrights, and songsmiths (''Molly Bawn,'' ''The Low ­Backed-Car") in Ireland. So much for St. Patrick. The cellist was Victor Herbert, whose operettas were later to eclipse all of his "serious" efforts, but Dvorak seems to have been bowled over by the concerto (there is a recording by Georges Miquelle and Howard Hanson), and there are hints of it in his own effort. Dvorak complains in his letters that running a conservatory is not conductive to composition, and it was not until the following November that he sat down in his New York apartment at 327 E. 17th St. to begin it. But there was only some final polishing left to be done when he left America in the spring of 1895. and the work had its premiere in London (Dvorak conducting) not quite a year later. The soloist was the brilliant and short-lived English cellist Leo Stern, husband of the American soprano Suzanne Adams (with whom he made some records; after his death in 1902 Miss Adams became the proprietress of a highly successful laundry in London). The American premiere, given in Boston in December, featured Alwin Schroeder, who had been Dvorak's adviser on the cello part. Wihan, the dedicatee, did not get to perform it until later, after a hassle with the composer over whose cadenzas would be played. Dvorak won. Brahms said he wished he had known a cello could sound like that--appar­ently forgetting his own sonatas and his double concerto, though what he really meant was that he wished he could write melodies that people could remember.

Pablo Casals made the first sensational recording of the concerto. Rostropovitch, called the greatest cellist since Casals (some go further than that), has recorded it several times - this one. I take it, being the first.

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