The Anton Dvorak’s B minor Cello Concerto Op. 104
Dvorak completed the revision of his Cello Concerto in 1895, when he had already returned to Prague, after his two and a half year stay in the U.S.A.
There is no truth in the story that this concerto expresses the composer’s acute nostalgia for his native land, whose geography and spirit were the chief source of inspiration of most of his works. There are practically no works by Dvorak impregnated with the composer’s own nostalgic feelings. On the other hand, we can find many examples of nostalgia connected to the programmatic content of a specific work. For example, the Black American tune in the famous second movement of the 9th. New World Symphony no doubt is an expression of deep nostalgia for the slaves’ native Africa from which they had been deported, with consequent loss of roots and traditional way of life. It would be quite senseless to argue, however, that this clearly identifiable feeling should be associated with an unconscious projection of the composer’s own feelings. Furthermore, there is a clear feeling of emptiness, of irretrievable loss of something or someone dear in the 10th. Slavonic Dance in E flat (arguably the finest of the set), together with a feeling of awe in the face of this sadness to which life subjects us, with all the associated nagging questions. However, it would be mistaken to think of the amalgam of feelings, vibrations and states of mind communicated by the composition as an expression of nostalgia pure and simple. When you place a flower on your brother’s grave you feel something much deeper and complex than simple nostalgia.
To return to the Cello concerto and the alleged nostalgia for a distant homeland, it should be pointed out that such a feeling is experienced by those who know that they will be unable to return home for a long period, not by someone who knows that he will be returning home in a few months, having already returned home for a holiday even before beginning the Concerto! Dvorak is not a melancholic composer, even though he is a masterful interpreter of the ever present sadness typical of the Slav-Bohemian soul, infused with uncertainty about roots and a desire to escape.
Admittedly, Dvorak is a composer who does often clearly (even to the point of banality) transmit feelings and concepts closely linked with frequently experienced personal states of mind. His homeland occupies a privileged position. He loves to depict its woods of varied hues where the deep green of the conifers is interspersed with the white trunks of birch trees, while small blue lakes twinkle here and there. Likewise the typical, rather forbidding houses with their large overhanging roofs, with the tragic air so typical of local villages and their inhabitants, even in periods of calm and devotion (it is sufficient to recall here the Symphonic Poem ” The Wild Dove” and the feelings it evokes, with such identification with death as to border on the ridiculous, if it were not for the intense beauty of the music itself, which brings listeners back to its deliberately descriptive character). Dvorak also fell under the spell of Prague, with its spires and statues, its unusual 19th.-20th. century baroque-art nouveau architecture. His soul was consequently tinged with feelings of late Romantic tragedy. It should not be forgotten that by this time the National Musical Schools had passed their climax. The future was to bring the pre-impressionistic pages of Franck and Fauré, to be further developed by Debussy and Ravel.
The B minor Cello Concerto Op. 104 is Dvorak’s last great symphonic work and perhaps his masterpiece. It was followed by the operas “The Devil and Kate”, “Rusalka” and “Armida”, the last symphonic poems, the last string quartet, the Requiem and little else. A great creative life had come to an end.
The first version of the Cello Concerto had been completed at the end of February 1895, during the last months of the composer’s stay in America. Revision began (particularly of the third movement) after his return home and was completed in April 1895. This work could count as Dvorak’s spiritual legacy: an echo of the most significant moments in his life, a statement of his most profound ideas and feelings, and, lastly, the prelude to a painful, dramatic farewell. An artist’s life was ending, as was the era of national music based on typical popular feelings. As a kind of omen, the Cello Concerto announces the exit of those vibrant National Schools, whose sharply focused emotional canvasses had opened up to listeners the most hidden corners of a Nation’s soul.
Dvorak’s stay in America was drawing to a close. This was probably the most significant period in his life. His artistic career had reached its climax, with his decisive contribution to the birth of the American School of Music. It was in this climate that the B minor Cello Concerto was conceived. Nevertheless, the meaning of the work needs to be examined in the context of a decisive event in the composer’s life: his secret love (which would become a source of inspiration throughout his life) for his future sister-in-law Josefina Cermàkovà, to whom he had given piano lessons thirty years before, and whose younger sister he married. Dvorak dedicated a “Song” Op. 82/1 to her and, in his youth, had written a sketch of an A major Cello Concerto (1865) which was never orchestrated nor performed in public. He subsequently wrote “Cypresses” (1887), a sequence of melodies for string quartet (which, as their title suggests, were mostly pessimistic), as if he had wanted to hold the hopeless funeral of his feelings for Josefina. She fell seriously ill just before Dvorak began to compose his Concerto (October-November 1894), after his return to New York for the second time. The second theme of the first movement certainly celebrates the appearance of love (and thus of Josefina) in the composer’s life. The second movement returns to the Song Op. 82 (rewriting it in three quarters), which had been composed for her. It is also probable that Dvorak brought his return home forward, so as to see her alive, and, on her death, a month later, he decided to partially alter the Concerto, adding some quotations from the Song to the third movement and also sixty new bars near the end. These are certainly the most dramatic. Here regret for a still living, though unrequited love is transfigured in the encounter between two souls that have finally become one. When an artist expresses himself like this, he need add no more. The Concerto is like an intimate final conversation with her. Here the composer ideally consecrates his whole life to her, a life in which the crucial importance of this love is newly underlined by his music. It was no coincidence that the cello was chosen in the composer’s youth to exalt his first unfinished love song, and it was no coincidence that the cello places the final seal on a song of death, the artist’s farewell.
Conceptual and Archetypal Analysis
Analysis of the Concerto will be attempted here on the basis of archetypes and identifiable reworkings. Analysis of the various archetypes is only in its early stages and new ones may well be soon discovered. Therefore, the detailed analysis of particular passages, required for full understanding of the work, will be completed by contextual background and interpretations of emotional states expressed in the various parts of the work, about which we are relatively certain.
The Concerto’s first movement runs through the high points of the composer’s life. The cello gives voice to introspection, during which Dvorak tries to find answers to fundamental questions posed by life, alternating this with phases of emotionally charged recollection.
The orchestra begins with the two fundamental themes of the first movement (those of Life and Love, bars 1-86) preparing the general scenario for the listener. The first theme contains an initially mild version of the question-answer archetype (1) in the first four notes (bars 1-2), the question every man asks himself about the worth of his own life and actions: have I had something to say? have I had something to give? The answer given by the following four notes is a proud, unhesitating ‘yes’. The same archetype is expressed again (bars 9-10) and then again but more forcefully (bars 17-18), though with doubts (was living and making one’s mark useless?) and even despair, as expressed musically by the temporary switch from B minor to its dominant (F sharp major). After four bars of preparatory reworking, the same archetype is expressed with confident solemnity (bars 23-24). Immediately after this a rhythmic musical thought follows (something of an exposition of real experiences) leading, in the end, to the double repetition of the same archetypal theme (bars 45-46, and 47-48) and the subsequent “expansion” (bars 49-56), as if to prefigure a moment of contemplation, before the beginning of the second theme, which is split into two parts: the first from bar 57 to bar 64, the second from bar 64 to bar 74. At this point it is important to remember that Dvorak himself stated that he was unable to listen to this theme without being deeply moved. Here optimism, tenderness and purity no doubt witness a desire to express (first part) the arrival of love in the composer’s life, admittedly, on this occasion, mixed with a feeling of nostalgia and pain for what could have been but had never and would never be. Then we have (second part) the need to react with bitterness, because life goes on, even though fate has weighed the composer down with the highly charged, terrible burden of unrequited love. The last two bars of the second part prepare listeners for the announcement of the inescapability archetype slightly (2) reworked (bars 75-86) and toned down in the finale. Now we have “quasi improvvisando” (as the score instructs) the entry of the solo cello (bar 87), which repeats the first (question-answer archetype) theme vigorously and confidently. The musical discourse continues intimately and with a certain feeling of suspense as far as the doubly reworked analysis of the question archetype alone (bars 110-111 and 112-113) followed by two moving moments of self justification (bars 114-115 and 116-117), which after calming down (bars 118-119) end up in four sad gentleness archetypes (3) repeated twice (bars 120-121) and reworked with dramatic vigour (bars 122-127). They precede the repeated return of the question-answer archetype (bars 128-129 and 130-131), where, however, the answer is doubtful and pessimistic (expressed in G minor with subsequent resolution in E minor), even though it precedes and introduces the second theme which is a pure love song. The song, though in the extremely positive key of D major, remembering how it had been announced by the orchestra in bars 54-74, and how the latter now accompanies and comments on (strings alone) the cello solo, it appears, especially in the second part particularly moving and consciously without hope. Actually, after the first exposition (bar 140 ff.) whose second part (bars 147-156) is impregnated with regret and sadness, the subsequent variations (bars 158-165) seem an attempt at explanation and rationalization of an affective disappointment and logically lead to (bars 166-169) an uncertain reworking of the question archetype, which is transformed into an attempted reaction (bars 170-171), followed by (bars 172-176) two expanded growing inescapability archetypes and, finally, the reaffirmation of the composer’s freedom to live his life with dignity (bars 177-179), even though the search for a few moments of calm and tenderness (bars 180-181: expanded gentleness archetypes) is frustrated by the reappearance of inescapability (bars 182-183) followed by moments of painful introspection (bars 186-192). The Orchestra, however, returns us to the earlier questions (192-222), while the reworking of the second answer (bars 195 and 199) means uncertainty and lasts until the re-entry of the cello solo (bar 223), which repeats an exaggeratedly expanded version of the question-answer archetype. This means transforming doubt into a long, painful, existential lament up to bar 238, seeing that after this (bars 240 ff.) anguish appears in the orchestra, made more intense and dramatic by the cello’s minute self criticism which is mildly superimposed. Even if the scenario appears to have been restored (bars 243-245), subsequently, an even more anguished and dramatic crescendo repeats (bars 252-254) the customary questions. However, this time, the absence of an answer is the cause of a violent reaction (bars 256-260) in which the cello, after silencing the orchestra, is forcefully highlighted, almost as if claiming the right to an independent, creative life, though lived in affective loneliness. This reaction calms down and takes on concrete form in the solemn proclamation of eternal love, expressed fortissimo by the orchestra (first part of the second theme – bars 267 ff.). A second part follows, announceed by the cello more positively than at bars 61-64, with an intensity reaching its climax at bar 281 (first movement) then calmly introducing the introspective variations (bars 285-292) similar to the previous ones (bars 158-165), followed (bars 297 ff.) by the same psychological reactions, viz inescapability, tenderness etc. with reference to acceptance foregrounded by a different key (B major – the final key of the movement – the previous one was the correlated D major of the initial B minor). Immediately afterwards (bars 319-320) the orchestra repeats the question-answer archetype, this time solemnly and optimistically (in B major) associating the cello (bars 322-324), which answers in the same way, as if every doubt had been overcome, suffering accepted without reservations, a return to intellectual independence accomplished. The following bars (325-342), almost joyously and decisively express the same concepts, while, when the cello falls silent, the orchestra for the last time, solemnly reaffirms the value of life experienced and choices made.
This outline deals with the basic feelings that the composer placed at the foundations of the exposition and analysis of his own life. To understand the message correctly and exhaustively it should be remembered that the archetypes present in the work are in constant dialogue with the mental reworkings appearing both in the orchestral texture and the solo cello part, almost as if to complete the catalogue of the main events in the composer’s life with all possible conceptual subtleties.
“Let me wander alone with my thoughts”. These are the first words of the youthful song dedicated to Josefina, which forms the basis of the central theme of the second movement. This movement is clearly a pause for reflection and prayer after the stormy first movement. We should not forget that Dvorak was a deeply religious man, devoted to his wife and family. For this reason he must have been particularly sensitive to the sentimental problems posed by his painful, and later idealized first love. He also suffered the premature loss of his first three children. Here, then, we have contemplation and prayer, but also difficult episodes of real life before the final apotheosis of the composer’s farewell.
The first bars (1-9) preceding the cello’s entry, are played by oboes, clarinets and bassoons, their combined sound recalling an organ, in a deeply mystical atmosphere. The “bitter” gentle archetype expressed in the third movement of the first bar is masterfully completed by the solemn call of the same movement of the second bar, calming down in the third and fourth. The same, reworked archetype appears in the repetition (fifth bar), anticipating the archetypal reference to weeping sadness in the third movement of the sixth bar, which is dissolved in preparation (eighth bar) for the cello’s entry.
The soloist enters mildly, repeating the same theme, like a human voice, identifying itself with the initial mystical atmosphere, then passing on to a reflective mood (bars 12-14). A dialogue with the orchestra ensues. The latter asks “what did you want?” (bars 15-18) and the cello answers “just a little calm and affection” (bars 16/18/20), while preparing (bar 21) an intense recollection of private life through the expanded archetypes of tenderness (last movements of bars 22/23/24), alternating joyful moments with inner struggles (bars 25-26), reaching a climax in a cry (bar 28), which leads on to several gentleness archetypes (bars 29-33), appearing to indicate a need both to give and receive this gentleness with final resignation. However, the orchestra leads the soloist back to the initial mystical atmosphere for a moment (bars 35-38), before provoking archetypes of strength and expanded inescapability (bars 39-42), only to forcefully remind it of the need to return to reflection. The cello reacts promptly, accompanied by the subtle comment of the first violins, trying to “justify itself” and explain the reason for an emotional disturbance (bars 42-49). The melody then passes to the orchestra (flute) almost “pointing to” an exit towards calm (bars 50-53, in E flat major), which the cello’s song initially appears to reject but which, following the flute’s insistence, is turned into resigned submission (bars 54-57). But now an exhortation comes from the orchestra to react and wake up from bitter day dreaming (bars 57/59), and this is commented on and rejected by the cello (bars 58/60) immediately before returning to gentleness archetypes (as in bars 29-33), though a weaker (due to a different key?) and, above all, disputed gentleness, inexorably underlined by the orchestral cellos’ pizzicato (bars 61-64). The solo cello then yields to another “bitter” archetype (bar 64) preparing the way for the orchestra’s sudden surrender to a call for order (bars 65-68), again consisting of the previously encountered strength and inescapability archetypes. The conflict between soloist and orchestra is suddenly resolved. The latter takes over (bars 69-74) the “justification” theme (expressed by the soloist in bars 42-49), while the former comments and underlines, so as to show the reconciliation reached by the two parties. Even if the oboe meekly hints at (bar 76) the “indications” theme (introduced at bar 50) with subsequent encouragement (bars 83/85), this time, owing both to the different key and the cello’s milder language (showing acceptance), the conflict appears to have calmed down, even though comment (bars 84/86) and need for tenderness (bars 87-90) are allowed for the last time, accompanied by the cellos’ pizzicato ending on the bitter gentleness archetype (bar 91), followed, however, by faded gentleness-question archetypes, almost a soliloquy with no return (bars 92/93/94). The orchestra, first solemnly (bars 95-98) then commandingly (bars 99-101), revives the soloist, summoning it again to reflection, to its real essence, with a strong, dramatic appeal (first movement of bar 103). Then the soloist resigns him/herself (bars 105-106) and begs to confess for the last time in total isolation (brief cadenza – bars 107 ff.). Then the cello lets itself be accompanied by the orchestra to reach unanimous conclusions. There is a new hint (bars 129-132) at the questions in bars 15-18, further comment but this time no need for tenderness, but rather escape to far off dreams (bars 135-141), which then disappear (bars 141-144). Return to reality, consisting of the brief hint at a cadenza (bars 146-147) precedes a desire for freedom, underlined by the orchestra, which accepts and supports this result of the entire meditative path followed in the second movement. But in the end (bars 157-162) an omen grips the soloist, who, for the first time, feels a definite farewell to be his/her oncoming fate. This anticipates what was to be expressed in the dramatic sixty bars added to the third movement after Josefina’s death.
Meditation, silence and prayer are the key concepts here. But we also have moving recall of the composer’s deepest thoughts and desires. There is also almost rebellion against life, which had imposed frustrations and lost opportunities for tenderness from someone he loved with all his heart. It was when he had finished composing this movement that Dvorak found out about Josefina’s death. The omen of farewell to life, in the last bars, is transformed into a tragic omen of a farewell to her, which would be returned to and – we shall see how – refined in the finale of the third movement.
It has been claimed that the initial theme of this movement, taken up again several times, reveals how immensely happy the composer was about returning home for good. Actually he had only left his homeland for the second time a few months earlier. Apart from the fact that this happy occasion was no surprise since Dvorak had known for some time when his stay would end, and this end was probably brought forward because of sad news from Prague, Josefina’s poor health certainly put him in no mood for optimism. Such a hypothesis could only be the work of superficial interpreters.
So then what is the meaning of the bold, determined beginning of the third movement? There is no doubt about the answer. It is the shrill cry of a final adieu, of a journey to other destinies, of a conscious, proud farewell
After the exciting view of the composer’s life in the first movement, and the meditation, thoughts, dreams and premonitions of the second, we now have an anticipation of the farewell from his life of both man and artist, mysteriously appearing anew in consciousness and overwhelmingly affirmed in music. The route is difficult, since thousands of unexpressed, incomplete memories and sensations recall him and make his final break difficult, as is shown by the musical concepts expressed. But what was only supposed to be an anticipation, however painful, of his farewell from an artist’s life, becomes, through an impenetrable plan of fate, the real manifestation of the definitive separation from the woman he loved. This separation was strongly rejected by Dvorak, who imposed a “mental itinerary ” on himself, in the already mentioned sixty bars introduced after Josefina’s death, leading him, on an “isolated hilltop” from which he can no longer come down, to reunion with her.
The orchestra begins with eight solemn strength archetypes, and immediately three French horns, in the following eight bars, announce and summarize the farewell theme (bars 5-12), to which the strings reply in unison (followed by the other instruments) with yells (almost) of strong encouragement, as an emphatic preparation for the cello’s entry, confidently expounding (bars 33-40) the decision to go. The theme involves an expanded rhetorical question-answer archetype: “on the threshold of your journey (first four bars) do you have any regrets?” – “No, let’s go (following four bars), because everything has been accomplished”. And the sense of “satisfaction” lies in the original five notes (bar 39) which force the soloist to pause until the second part of the bar, ending in bar 40. But here the orchestra takes over the whole theme forcefully, shouting it out fortissimo (bars 40-48), so as to take note, once and for all, of the determination expressed by the cello, which returns in bar 49, with an almost triumphant comment in the cadenza up to bar 55. After this the reasons for decisions taken continue to be explained up to bar 80, at which point it is joined by the orchestra, which offers confirmation as far as bar 87. Up to this point there have been no conflicts on decisions made, no regrets. Josefina is already dead, and no further spiritual or earthly reason can stop Dvorak from saying his farewell.
Now, a long period of recollection begins, from an objective standpoint. Memories of infinite gentleness and moments of near nostalgia will return, though experienced with the awareness of someone belonging to another dimension. The orchestra will wonderfully accompany and guide this last song without opposition, without anguished questions, without recollections, awaiting, with the greatest respect that the renewal of the soul reach fulfillment. From bar 87 to bar 110, preparation is to the fore, with lively stimuli (bars 89-90 and 93-94) and finally (bars 107-110) expectation. The cello enters boldly, appearing to be on a self quest, asking itself if it is right to return along previous paths (bars 111-114 and 116-120), but then gives in and recalls, with bitter gentleness archetypes, the early stages of its journey, and to the questioning oboe (bar 129) answers affirmatively (bar 131). After a moment’s hesitation (bars 132-134) it returns with greater gentleness to memory (bars 135-142) preparing the most painful, nostalgic moment (bars 143-158) of the entire Concerto, which the orchestra takes up and shares almost rhapsodically (bars 159-166) underlined by painful moans (bars 159-160 and 163-164), followed by what appear to be sobs (expanded weeping archetypes – bars 167-168 and 171-172). These are taken up again with difficulty (bars 173-177) and end in a long reflective episode with moments of almost desperate intensity (bars 189-198) only to recover in the end (bars 199-202) and plunge into the certainties of the orchestra, which encourages the soloist to recover (strength and inescapability archetypes), accept and repeat once again (bars 226-237) the recollection of the beginnings in bars 121-128, then proceed alone. Thus the cello, after a brief meditation (bars 238-242), recovers (bars 243-245), and slowly takes off again towards farewell, in extreme, painful solitude (bars 246-253), followed by the whole orchestra (bars 254-266) underlining, in the first and second violins’ interrupted sextuplets (254-256), respectful, though frank satisfaction for taking up the journey again. However, a pause for thought is imposed (bars 269-280). This is where the last long meditation begins, in which the cello, supported by the orchestra, plays a sure, extremely gentle theme (the key has changed to G major), almost as if to express an intimate desire for “purification” (bars 281-288), followed by moments of regret (bars 289-296, with inner doubt archetypes: bars 290/294) about surrendering to such a deeply felt, desperate recollection. The theme returns forcefully (bars 297-314), reaching its climax at bars 301/302 and confirming, in a dialogue with the orchestra (bars 305-306 and 309-310), the decision never to look back again. But the orchestra needs certainty, and begins (bars 315-332) insistent demands for further information, accepted by the cello, which comments on them carefully and takes them over, until a common agreement is reached (bars 331-346). The conclusion is mutual, responsible preparation (bars 343-346) for the return, which on this occasion is grand and self assured, of the purification theme (the key is now B major and remains so until the end) expressed in moving, joyous unison (bars 347-379), reaching its end (“rapid ascent” archetype) in the fundamental, liberating, concluding bar 380. After that we have a common anxious race (bars 381-412) towards freedom from earthly bonds. This ends, after determined, impressive preparation, (bars 413-418) in a solemn announcement (bars 419-420) immediately repeated by the orchestra (bars 421-424). The awesome farewell, final departure, reunion with Josefina is drawing near. Here the first theme returns in meditative form, almost as a light cadenza (bars 425-436), as if to hope for profound meditation before the final step, followed by slow, inevitable setting off (bars 436-448, with expanded “slow descent’ archetypes in bars 445-448) towards the “isolated hilltop”, his final destination, a dreaded, though desired calvary. Bar 449 sees the beginning of the sixty bars added by Dvorak after Josefina’s death, which are now clear in their meaning i.e. an individual’s mystical exaltation after the last, emotionally exhausting separation and spiritual reunion with her. All this is transparently illustrated by the music. First we have a short, halting walk (bars 449-457), then a difficult ascent. After a while (bars 457-460, with “ascent” archetypes in bar 459) a pause; a call from the past arrives from afar (bars 461-465) so as to interrupt the ascent. But immediately, without hesitation, follows a second stretch (bars 465-468, with “ascent” archetypes in bars 465-466) followed by another pause. Here another call sadder than the previous one (bars 468-473) attempts to interrupt progress. Now, no longer paying attention, the third and last stretch is covered (bars 473-474, with “ascent” archetypes in bars 473-474); then, at last, the forceful joy of a trill indicates (bars 475-476) reunion with her and separation from the material world. But here we have another, this time the last, call: the eternal initial questions, now personalized (bars 477-480/clarinets) Have I had something to say to you? Have I had something to give to you? She replies, repeating the same questions (bars 481-484/French horns), while the cello, after several trills, says a final long drawn out farewell on the isolated hilltop (bars 481-484) with its most painful lament(*), so as to seal the journey and begin (bar 485) the rapid descent to infinity (bars 485-495, with “descent” archetypes in bars 485-488). The two spirits are now reunited for ever, never again to return. All we hear is the last fortissimo cry of the cello, in approval of this end (bars 496-499), while the orchestra, like a quick autumn fog, rises up and covers the whole scene (bars 497-507) then to flood the world with the last inescapability archetypes (bars 509-516).
Frantisek Kupka – Der Traub – Bochum Museum
How should this Concerto be performed? Looking at this question in the context identified and presented here, it would appear that the solo performer’s and conductor’s freedom is rather limited, if the composer’s own indications are to be followed closely. In our view this criterion should always be followed and the composers’ wishes and message contained in their works be previously analyzed in detail. Nevertheless, it is true that with the passing of time, cultural contexts vary as do expressive means for identifying and representing different emotional and spiritual states. It is only within these limits that one can correctly refer to “different” performances, especially when intimate, strictly autobiographical moments in a composer’s life are evoked.
Dvorak was a very simple man, who jealously guarded his feelings, which are only (transparently) revealed in his works. Sometimes, as is the case with this Concerto, they are so deep and personal, that they will not bear the weight of performers’ own ideas and emotions.
The cello soloist then requires a strong sense of humility and a strong inclination to identify him/herself with the subject in question. The performer’s own personality should take second place, one could say almost disappear, and he/she become the respectful mouthpiece of a mysterious, supernatural event, which mystical exaltation and overcoming one’s own physical condition will always be for us.
Dvorak dedicated this Concerto to his life long friend Hanus Wihan, with whom he had shared some difficult moments. The latter should have given the Concerto its world première, but perhaps was unable to understand the motivations underlying the work, and suggested several changes, and, above all, demanded some cadenzas at the end of the third movement. The only reason for this demand was the opportunity there would be for showing off instrumental virtuosity in a work which offered few chances for this kind of playing. Dvorak did not hesitate to refuse indignantly (see letter to F. Simrock dated October 3 1895) for very cogent reasons. Making such additions to the dramatic context of a final farewell, the composer’s and that of the National Schools of Music, simply to satisfy a soloist’s vanity, would almost have been like asking Gene Kelly to happily dance to the music of “Singin’ in the Rain” on the gravestone of the music of the 19th. century. Leo Stern gave the first performance of the concerto, with great success, in London on March 19 1896, one year after the death of Josefina, in whom the composer had found such inspiration.
What advice can we give to future performers? To feel above all “a humble, understated partner of the orchestra” sharing a collective drama, the events of a life that could be our own, in dialogues with it. As far as specific performers’ notes are concerned, readers are directed to the next section, in which two very different interpretations are compared.
Conductors wishing to attempt this arduous task should be on the same psychological and musical wavelength as the soloist, the tempos and expressive means being suitable for the various spiritual and emotional states expressed. The ideal conductor will act as an intermediary between soloist and orchestra, so that they sing with a sole voice, closely adhering to the spirit of the work. He should avoid imposing unacceptable views and, in agreement with the soloist, concentrate on the parts the composer gave to the orchestra alone.
Among the many recorded performances of this Concerto available, one struck this author as being close in spirit to the deeply rooted meanings we have attempted to reveal here.
The performance in question is that by Christine Walewska with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gibson and released in 1971. Was it her feminine sensitivity that captured the most intimate motivations underlying the work, unconsciously? We have rarely heard the equal.
Here we will attempt a comparison with the performance by Mstislav Leopol’dovič Rostropovič (perhaps the greatest living cellist) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and released in 1979.
Generally speaking Mme. Walewska performs the Concerto with a great sense of humility, though also with pathos and vigour when necessary. Her instrument (a Bergonzi 1740) has a veiled, dramatic, but also celestial sound. It can express deep sobs and moments of high spiritual intensity, without confusing timbres. The instrument responds perfectly to the various emotional demands from the soloist.
Rostropovič has a different approach. He dominates the Concerto, projecting his own conception and feelings on it. In other words,it is Rostropovič who makes use of Dvorak to express his own nostalgia for his homeland (Holy Mother Russia not small, troublesome, mysterious Bohemia) and his dramatic situation as an exile. Therefore, his performance, though of great technical brilliance, places the performer’s life and feelings before the listener, rather than the composer’s. The two aspects do not always coincide, though some have claimed that Dvorak’s Concerto expressed great nostalgia for a distant homeland, i.e. feelings similar to those of Rostropovič. Nevertheless it seems hardly credible that a man of Rostropovich’s sensitivity could only have concentrated on this aspect of the Concerto, which we believe is in fact non existent.
Rostropovič‘s cello is a Stradivarius, with a very cheerful sound, which can reach extremely forceful tones and high notes of great effect. It can create moments of intense, languid emotion and nostalgia. But the voice is too clear to faithfully and fully transmit emotions in the depth of the soul.