Cello Concerto – Dvorak

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Painting by Alex Katsenelson

Today I’d like to share with you Cello Concerto in B Minor, by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). As I was listening to this piece, I was amazed at how American parts of it sounded. I could suddenly see a home on the prairie, and a wagon rolling through Oklahoma. 

By the late 19th century Dvorak had become one of the most famous living composers, maybe second only to Brahms. The 19th century was the century of Europe, especially when it came to classical music. Jeannette Thurber, the wife of a very wealthy food distributor, wanted to change that. She wanted to bring classical music to the United States. In 1892 she invited Dvorak to the US to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York. She offered to pay him $15,000, twenty times more than he was paid at his current job. 

Dvorak’s main goal was to discover – and compose – distinctively American classical music. His unique gift was an ability to incorporate local folk music into his masterpieces. Discover he did. 

Dvorak spent three fruitful years in the United States, where he composed his now most famous (ninth) symphony – the New World Symphony. And this is where he also wrote this cello concerto. While in the US he found out that his wife’s older sister (whom he courted but was rejected by) was seriously ill. Dvorak dedicated the third movement of the concerto to her. 

This concerto is one of the most popular cello concertos today and thus we have a wealth of options as to who is the cellist performing this masterpiece. If you listen from minutes five to eight, you’ll clearly hear the American music (I think of cowboy westerns). But this is not where I really want to focus your attention. Minute nine of the first part has a wonderful cadenza (a solo for cello) that separates great performers from geniuses. In this cadenza a cellist gets a rare opportunity to compose his or her own music within the bounds of what Dvorak wrote. Not to get overdramatic here, but for a moment the cellist gets to expose his or her soul. 

I am going to set the recordings below to this cadenza (you can always rewind them back). Jacqueline du Pré stole my heart with her performance. 

Who is your favorite performer?

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Antonin Dvorak


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