American Innovation and Bohemian Nostalgia:
An Analysis of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
“Music is not supposed to be nationalist. It is supposed to surpass language barriers. It is about generations communicating with each other.”1 Antonin Dvořák lived on the border of nationalism and innovation by adapting different cultures in his musical style. While Antonin Dvořák longed for his home in Bohemia, for instance, he composed his last major work during his stay in America, the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104. He grappled with his identity, being called an American composer by some, though he was zealous about his status as a Czech composer.2 Dvořák determined different stylistic decisions for his cello concerto Op. 104 by his experiences in America and his memories from Bohemia. The concerto embraces a style of Bohemian immersion in America.3
Dvořák showed great virtuosity as a composer by blending nationalism with an international style, which made his works internationally renowned during his own lifetime, while still embracing Bohemian tradition.4 It is unfair to call Dvořák a purely Czech composer, or even a composer that utilized a blend of American and Czech styles, since Dvořák drew his inspiration and knowledge from many places and times. Trends in nationalism pressured Dvořák’s conservation of a stark sense of patriotism. This nationalism becomes especially apparent in his operas, which were often set in Moravia, his incorporation of folk tunes and dance rhythms used throughout his musical career. He was inspired by American encouragement towards innovation, general enthusiasm, and patriotism and he showed interest African-American spirituals and Native American folk tunes. For example, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 was majorly influenced by African-American spirituals through use of the pentatonic scale and rhythms typical of African-American folk tunes. Because Dvořák drew from different ethnicities and different times shows the unbelievable blend of nationalism and assimilation to world music. Dvořák’s style was individual because he adopted so many cultures’ traditions.
Dvořák’s upbringing led to his reputation as a rural composer, he gained popularity because he represented his culture and childhood within his music while still adapting other styles. Dvořák was not a child prodigy, he grew up in the countryside of Bohemia, and his parents expected him to become a butcher.5 Though, Dvořák’s family consisted of many amateur musicians. Dvořák’s father, Frantisek, taught Dvořák the violin at an early age, giving young Dvořák a passion for music while still being expected to have a trade as a butcher. Another way Dvořák maintained his culture, other than through music, was through the resistance of learning the German language.6 His resistance hampered his education but showed determination to maintain his heritage by knowing only the Czech language. Though Dvořák was able to assimilate multiple musical media into one hybrid style, Dvořák’s upbringing and unique musical style represents a true Czech upbringing.
In the time leading up to the composition of the Cello Concerto, Dvořák doubted the cello as a suitable solo instrument; different people in his life, from different both his home and elsewhere convinced him otherwise. Before Dvořák wrote the Cello Concerto in B minor, he attempted to write a cello concerto in 1865 but was left dissatisfied. He left the score in a short form, not even bothering to arranging it for orchestra.7 Dvořák said to one of his composition students, “I have … written a cello-concerto, but am sorry to this day I did so, and I never intend to write another. The cello is a beautiful instrument, but its place is in the orchestra and in chamber music. As a solo instrument it isn’t much good.” Despite knowing Dvořák’s feelings, Hanuš Wilhan, a great Bohemian cellist and old friend of Dvořák, tried convincing Dvořák for years that the cello was a suitable instrument for a concerto.8 Hanuš was not the one to convince Dvořák though. When Dvořák saw the premiere of Cello Concerto no. 2 by Victor Herbert, an American composer, Dvořák was inspired enough to compose a cello concerto.9 Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor was the last of three major works composed during his stay in America and the only work completed during his third year there.10 He began composing the concerto on November 8, 1894 and the full score was completed on February 9, 1895.11 Dvořák’s decision to write the Cello Concerto in B minor was largely influenced by his experiences with people from his home, from America, and from other cultures.
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto does not have any blatantly outward signs of nationalism. There is no statement about either America or Bohemia like there was in many of his other works, though many scholars speculate about different influences. Battey states, “It breathes the pure air of the Bohemian countryside, though it is an atmosphere sometimes charged with menace.”12 The cello concerto exemplifies Bohemian traits through pentatonic scales at rehearsal no. 4, and through an aaB phrase pattern (also at rehearsal no. 4). The concerto does not use any actual folk songs or even generalized folk dances. The name of the composition does not fit with his other major American works because he does not title the work with any American influence. Through his titles, Dvořák “From the New World” Symphony and “American” String Quartet clearly exemplifies that he had thoughts of America while composing those works. In addition to these traits in his writing, many claim that Dvořák was writing with a strong sense of longing for home. This homesickness is exemplified through difficult seesaw arpeggios on the cello beneath a yearning woodwind passage at rehearsal no. 6, and at the entrance of the soloist at Rehearsal No. 10 with a hushed variant of the opening motif. Though much of the concrete styles of utilizing folk tunes and other Bohemian musical styles are absent, the feelings of longing are present in the music through lyrical melodies, and in Dvořák’s personal life at the time of composing the concerto.
Dvořák missed his home greatly when he wrote the concerto. He wrote a letter to his friend, Alois Göbl, “…we are missing the children terribly you can imagine and that we can hardly wait until the spring when, God grant, we return…I want to show you one episode which I reflected on very greatly, but with which in the end I was satisfied. Every time when I play it I tremble.”13 The effects of longing on the cello concerto is much less concrete than the letters and verbal expression of longing for his his home. Through form, David Hurwitz speculates that the first movement of the concerto is a programatic movement, giving the image of the composer isolated in America because of a lack of symphonic direction in the first movement.14 Dvorak wrote his final piece composed in America while he longed for his home, though the impact on the music is only clear through the concerto’s beauty.
Of Dvořák’s three concertos, the cello concerto is the most progressive. The innovative nature of America likely inspired this progressiveness. The world knew Dvořák for the Czech influences that come out in his music, but in his American Period, he began to experiment with a wider palette, being able to assim ilate more cultures into a coherent piece of music. Dvořák said:
The two American traits which must impress the foreign observer, I find, are the unbounded patriotism and capacity for enthusiasm of most Americans. Unlike the more diffident inhabitants of other countries, who do not “wear their hearts upon their sleeves,” the citizens of America are always patriotic, and no occasion seems to be too serious or too slight for them to give expression to this feeling.15
An employer did not limit Dvořák’s expression; contrary to most Romantic compositions, Dvořák’s concertos were not commissioned.16 Dvořák showed his immersion in American life by being more innovative with his instrumentation. The instrumentation was larger than any other orchestra fielded in a concerto.17 Dvořák added three trombones, a tuba, a piccolo, and a triangle, to the normal lineup of double woodwind, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings. This was a concerto that showed off the cello, as much as it was a concerto to show off the orchestra. Dvořák used the orchestral tutti sparingly, creating a chamber music feel. Dvořák maintained a predominance of the woodwinds as soloists with the cellist, creating an equality between the soloist and the orchestra. The famous horn solo in the introduction of the second theme perfectly exemplifies this predominance of other instruments as soloists. Dvořák also shows the predominance of the orchestra by starting the first movement with an exceptionally large orchestral exposition. This progressive use of the orchestra is representative of the innovative American writing style.
The unorthodox form of the concerto is shown by pairing of the orchestra with the soloist as equal members and melodic invention within the cello concerto, brought the concerto to the top of cello repertoire. The form of Dvořák’s Cello concerto combined the old with the new. His forms were often modeled by the Viennese classics: Beethoven, Schubert, and later, Brahms. The concerto uses the classical sonata form in the first movement, beginning with an expansive orchestral introduction that introduces the thematic material. In the introduction of the second subject, there is no movement away from tonic, which was uncommon at the time. The orchestra is paired fairly evenly with the soloist in the classical concerto form. This is contrary to the Romantic concerto form, where the soloist clearly maintains the leading role. For example, in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the cello has a leading role throughout. The orchestra is used through repetition and support rather than as an equal to the soloist. The form of the first movement is very coherent with a symphony. All major key changes occur in the development (mm 204-266), though the form is extremely symphonic, alternating solo sections with the orchestra cause the piece to have a more varied texture than many other symphonies. Dvořák wrote the first movement in an innovative style, he developed an unconventional architecture and form. To see the whole form, refer to chart I. Dvořák assimilated much of his style by learning from past composers and traditions from many places and times.
Through all of these innovations, Dvořák’s true gift always shone through in his melodic invention.18 Through melody, Dvořák could best portray his longing for home and his overall musical brilliance. When Johannes Brahms first examined the score to Dvořák’s late Cello Concerto, he exclaimed, “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a violoncello concerto like this?”19 Brahms, Dvořák’s friend, was known as an urban and social composer. Brahms had a very different style from Dvořák, but he still appreciated Dvořák’s work. The cause for this praise is shown in the first movement; the first movement is long, expansive, lyrical, and requires a lot of technical versatility on the solo cellist.
The premiere’s location was not in Bohemia or in America. The piece premiered in London by the English cellist Leo Stern as the soloist. The American premiere was in December 1896 in Boston with Alwin Schroeder as the soloist.20 If this work was truly meant to be interpreted as an American or Bohemian nationalistic work, Dvořák likely would have been more passionate about the premiere being in either America or Bohemia. Rather, the styles of all of these places are present, but the work is not meant to portray a political message. There was an important revision to the score after returning to Bohemia in the following spring, making the work neither a purely American or Bohemian composition in regard to location while composing the piece.
There is no certain way of telling whether the first movement of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 was meant to portray a particular culture. Dvořák was naturally influenced by his home in Bohemia and by his stay in America. Outside of composing Dvořák missed his home, but there is no certain way to tell what inspired his creation of such symphonic breadth in a concerto, such large orchestration or such beautiful lines. Critics and audiences received the cello concerto with enthusiasm. The London Times wrote, “In wealth and beauty of thematic material, as well as in the unusual interest of the development of its first movement, the new Concerto yields to none of the composer’s recent works; all three movements are richly melodious.”21
Battey, Robert. “Thoughts of Home: The Cello Concerto in B Minor, Opus 104,” in Dvořák in America: 1892-1895, ed. John C. Tibbetts, 284-293. (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993).
Dvořák, Antonín. Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104. New York: Kalmus, 1900
Dvořák, Antonín. Concerto for cello & orchestra in B minor, op. 104. Konzertstück. Raphael Wallfisch, violoncello. London: Chandos, 1988. Audio Disc
Dvořák, Antonín. Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in B minor, op. 104. Edited by Klaus Döge. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2001.
Hurwitz, David. Dvořák: Romantic Music’s Most Versatile Genius. Milwaukee, WI: Amadeus Press, 2005.
Sayer, Derek. The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Schonzeler, Hans-Hubert. Dvořák. New York: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1984.
Smaczny, Jan. Dvořák: Cello Concerto. Cambridge: University Press, 1999.