Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dvořák - Cello Concerto

In 19th century musical life, the region of Germany and Austria reigned supreme.  For those ambitious enough to want international recognition as a composer, the best way was to be acknowledged in Germany. All of the master composers of the 19th century had connections with Germany, if not by birth by other connections such as studying there, living there, or knowing the right people there.

Fortunately for many composers, there were famous men of  the time that helped otherwise unknown composers get their foot in the door. Perhaps the most magnanimous was Liszt, who met, encouraged and promoted many younger composers of his time. Liszt used his fame (and in many cases his fortune) to help many composers, the most famous being Wagner.  One name that is not thought of as a promoter of another composer's works is Johannes Brahms.

The most prevalent impression of Brahms is an acerbic bachelor that had little use for any of his contemporaries, especially the leaders and followers of the 'New Music' movement led by Liszt and Wagner. Even when Brahms had something good to say about someone else, as a contemporary once said of him, "His compliments sting like salt in the eyes." Brahms once visited an acquaintance who was a minor composer. Brahms got there and saw the man playing outside with his children. His wife apologized, saying that her husband composed so much that he had little time to stop. Brahms replied, "Thank God, it should happen more often."

Brahms could be a cantankerous personality, and there's been much speculation about his childhood and early adulthood and how it formed his personality. But the truth is that Brahms actually did acknowledge the genius of Wagner and thought that his opera 'The Mastersingers Of Nuremburg' as a high point in German art. That he disliked what he thought was the undue influence of these composers with younger composers is to be expected, given Brahms conservative nature.

But Brahms could be a devoted friend, and there is at least one example of his giving his help to an up and coming composer. Brahms was on a panel that was to select a gifted composer in the Hapsburg Empire a stipend to help them keep composing. It was then that Brahms was amazed at the huge volume of music Dvořák entered in the competition. Brahms was instrumental in seeing that the stipend was awarded Dvořák not only that year, but the next two years also. Brahms sent letters to his publisher Simrock about Dvořák's music and even worked as a copyist and editor of the music to help speed up its publication.

That Dvořák was appreciative is an understatement. They remained very good friends until Brahms death. The last piece of music of Dvořák that Brahms worked on was the Cello Concerto. He corrected the proofs and played the piano reduction of the orchestra with a cellist and 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!"

The concerto begins with a traditional exposition from the orchestra alone, the cello comes in with a flourish. The second movement was inspired by Dvořák's sister-in-law who he was very fond of. He was in love with her but it didn't work out so he ended up marrying her sister. In the movement Dvořák quotes one of his own compositions, a song that he wrote that was one of his sister-in-law's favorites.  She had been taken ill while Dvořák was composing the score and died shortly after.  The final movement begins with a dance melody, has a slow, sad section in it that quotes the song again from the middle movement, then proceeds to the triumphant ending.

Dvořák wrote the Cello Concerto near the end of his time in New York City in 1894-1895.  it had it's premiere in 1896 in London, England which was conducted by Dvořák. The soloist was Leo Stern.

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