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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.
“I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” –Claude Debussy
French impressionism, originating in Paris in the late 1800s, employed themes of light, movement, and human perception that changed artistic views of modern life. Within this movement, there was a change in focus from historical tradition and structure to rather modernity and the individual human experience. Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 presents Impressionist ideology as a transition from the classic approaches to form, melody, and harmony into the later tendencies of Twentieth Century music. Through a comparison of Debussy’s quartet to the first movements of two other string quartets, one outlining the traditional Classical era by Joseph Haydn, and another featuring post-modern harmonies and other innovations by Bela Bartok, this analysis explores the necessity of Impressionism as a bridge in Western music, transitioning composers’ emphasis on stylized tradition to later ideologies surrounding Twentieth Century music. Following a score analysis of each, as a well as set of recordings and and an interview with the performers of the excerpts, this project seeks to identify the characteristics attributed to each composer and their associated musical time-period, focusing mainly on Debussy and Impressionism. It is this analyst’s intent to better understand the influence of French Impressionism as developing the string quartet genre in the Western musical canon.
Amidst the outpour of art and music that surrounds the late 1800s leading in to the Twentieth century, French Impressionism arose as an expression of modern life. Straying away from the focus on the personal, individual, emotional, and natural as seen in the Romantic era, impressionism instead sought symbolism and pleasure in the moment. The new focus was on modernity, that of a fast-paced urban Paris along with leisure and pleasure in direct rejection of the rigid, learned techniques and traditions that were previously seen in art history. While ideologically, this movement paralleled the technological and social urbanization of the time, it was met originally with much apprehension. Its original founders, the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., formed with the intent to reject the center of French art at the time and therefore faced much critique from formal society, especially the Academie des Beaux-Arts. An exhibition by the Anonymous Society posed in 1874 and led by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pisarro, sought independence from the typical Salon in French Society, by presenting these modern ideas through art. Under this influence, their art featured light brush strokes, bright unblended colors, and the emphasis of light. Their ultimate intention was to create movement in art and to highlight the individuality of the experience and perception of each viewer.
In tandem, Impressionism in the Nineteenth century soon instilled this focus on individual perceptions and modern ideas in Western music. Composers began to stray from the Classical and Romantic traditions, developing techniques and philosophies that would later lead to new innovations throughout the Twentieth Century. The search of this “pleasure in the moment” ideology and focus on color and light was applied aurally, through musical works such as by Claude Debussy. His compositional style places focus on the “supremacy of musical color over form and design.” and therefore, was met with much disdain for his rejection of historical conventions in music. His works feature never before seen approaches to modality, tonality, scalar motion, implementation of exoticism, and most importantly, nonfunctional harmonies as important solely for their “sonorous value” rather than as a proper function in traditional music theory. Although little formal acclaim to the Impressionists and their movement, Debussy was first identified in a pejorative critique by the Academie who disapproved this abandonment of established theory. Eventually however, as public opinion grew to acceptance and the term impressionism was applied favorably, Debussy soon came to be known as the quintessential impressionist composer.
Earlier Classical/Romantic traditions developed well-established traditions and rules that composers such as Debussy and successors would later choose to deconstruct and build upon. While innovative and shocking in its own right, music composed by the “Father of the Symphony and String Quartet,” Joseph Haydn, was the first in the to regularly compose for four voices: two violins, viola, and cello. These pieces were meant for small settings, focusing on enjoyment of the performers while playing. Haydn’s quartets, with their clear form, pleasing style, and unique compositional inventions, set the composer as the paramount figure in the establishment and formation of the Classical string quartet genre.
Composed in four movements, Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3, nicknamed the “Emperor” and composed at the end of the Eighteenth Century, cleanly outlines style characteristics and form that were typical of the genre during the Classical Period. The first movement of this quartet is in clear sonata form. Leading the listener through a progression of main themes, variation, and a return, in addition to the harmonic focus of tonic-dominant relationships, sonata form was found easily accessible and aurally pleasing to its audience. The melodic material is presented in galant style, an expression shown in classical music by free homophony, tuneful melodies in the higher registers, and short gestures in even two, three,or four bar phrases. The opening theme of the exposition in the “Emperor” exemplifies these characteristics, especially beginning in mm. 7 with the dotted rhythmic melody in the first violin over a light accompaniment in the other three voices (See Figure 1).
As a part of this style, frequent tonal cadences featuring a predominant-dominant-tonic function are emphasized in the bass through a light accompaniment as well (See Figure 2).
As an essential contributor to the classical music tradition, Haydn and his works such as this string quartet embody these most important traditions of form, melody, and harmony in the historical cannon.
While clearly and precisely following sonata form typical of classical style, this quartet does have a few novelties of its own. In the exposition, a short theme in E-flat major (the flat three chord of the tonic C major) appears near the end of the secondary theme before a half cadence in D major in the new dominant key (See Figure 3).
This section is unusual because of its modal mixture, a concept commonly seen later Romantic compositions such as by Beethoven and even later works such as by Debussy. Additionally, the development features a lively, folk-like variation of the opening theme. A pedal in fifths in the cello, with a light dotted melody in the first violin follows galant principles, but with an unique design that sets this section apart from the rest of the movement, adding interest for the musicians performing as well as listeners (See Figure 4).
Other slight variations of regular form are presented throughout for elements of humor and wit, a method typical of Haydn. As a whole however, this movement clearly defines the structural components that make up the classical string quartet genre and its associated style.
Almost a hundred years later, in 1873, Claude Debussy composed his first and only string quartet. During this time between Haydn and Debussy’s works, the influence of Romantic composers such as Beethoven and Brahms had greatly changed the compositional approach and musical purpose of the string quartet genre. Due to his own theory of music, Debussy created a quartet that, while reminiscent of the outline first prescribed by Haydn, opened new doors for the genre. The first movement of this piece, similar to Haydn’s quartet, is clearly in sonata form. This time, however, the structure is much more cyclic, following a progression and development of the opening and secondary themes not only throughout the first movement, but the work as a whole. The opening melody, utilizing the phygrian mode with G as the final, features an arabesque triplet rhythm in the first violin leading to the downbeat of the next measure (See Figure 5).
With these opening bars, the traditional galant style used by Haydn are completely abolished and reformed. The opening is far more abrasive than the tuneful melodies and light accompaniment of Haydn, with all four voices playing a forte unison that comprises of a greater number of accidentals and more harmonic complexity than Haydn’s music. Commonplace tonal progressions (such as the typical IV-V-I progression seen at the cadence in Figure 2) are substituted with new scales and nonfunctional harmonies. Through these adaptations, Debussy’s writing focuses more on the exotic and aurally pleasing, rather than the cleanly formulated structures of the classical style.
The second theme in the Debussy, a slow, floating melody that begins in the first violin, is accompanied by rapid, chromatic sixteenth notes for an atmospheric quality typical of Impressionist music (See Figure 6).
Here, the focus on movement and blurred lines are apparent through the floating accompaniment and expressive melody that is passed between the first violin and cello. The sixteenth notes also present relentless chromaticism that will be amplified through Bartok’s string quartet as music headed toward more atonal and set-theory based compositions. The breakdown of part-writing rules and functional theory is presented in Debussy’s music and further expanded in later compositions of the Twentieth Century.
Following, the first movement of Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, written in 1928, is also outlined in sonata form, as with the two prior compositions. Here though, some discrepancy lies in this identification. The more ambiguous tonal center and lack of key signature eliminates any sense of a tonic-dominant relationship that was originally essential to the tradition of sonata form and structure. What typifies this piece as sonata form is the clear presentation of contrasting primary and secondary themes, their development, and a recapitulation and extended coda at the end. The themes themselves are revealed and developed throughout as an idea labeled “germ-motifs”for their unfolding process (See Figure 7).
This development is not unlike the cyclic development of Debussy’s themes in his sonata form first movement, a feature far different from Haydn’s original presentation of themes. Moreover, Bartok’s writing features alternative scales such as octatonic and pentatonic, and chromatic sixteenth notes as in the Debussy quartet (See Figure 8).
In addition to the nonfunctional melodic and harmonic technique, Bartok also includes narrower intervals, set-theory, atonality, and the expansion of instrumental potentials as a progression of Debussy’s innovations in his string quartet. His use of folk-tunes, similar to what is seen in Haydn’s quartet, but adapted into these new harmonic mediums, also emphasizes the transition of styles from Classical on through to Impressionist and later Twentieth Century music.
French Impressionism and its influence on Debussy changed many of Western music’s established norms, especially when studied by musicians and performers today. Throughout this analysis, the provided musical excerpts outline just a few of the many examples in form, melody, and harmony that have continued to expand and develop in the string quartet genre. To further emphasize these relationships, this analyst asked a volunteer string quartet to play one of the excerpts from each of the three composer’s quartets, totaling three excerpts. After playing, the performers were asked a series of questions that focused on the correlations between the different composers and their musical time periods, as well as how each compositional approach provided different challenges in performance. As a result, much of the interviewed claims supported evidence of the score analysis: Haydn’s quartet was viewed as “articulate” and “clean,” the Debussy quartet posed unique challenges with more complex rhythms, harmony, and a “sweeping style,” and the Bartok was said to be “bizarre”, “savage”, reminiscent of folk dances, and ultimately, “nebulous” and “ hard to latch onto.” To these performers, each excerpt by a different composer required a “mental switch” that changed not only the techniques by which one interpreted the piece, but also the physical aspects of playing, such as posture and weight of the bow on the strings. Unanimously, it was agreed that the Debussy quartet held almost an intermediary stance between the Haydn and Bartok; One member stated that, in terms of harmony, the Debussy was “still kind of holding on, but breaking away from the norms of Haydn.” This emphasis on Debussy’s quartet as beginning to break away from the Classical mold supports the findings of the score analysis and excerpt examples. Debussy’s approach to the string quartet genre helped develop new innovations that were continued by Bartok and others into the Twentieth Century. Addressing French Impressionism, the output of Debussy as a transitional figure in the Western musical canon is highly indebted to much of the ideologies of the artistic movement. It is important to note, however, that while the influence of French Impressionism and Debussy were vital to the transition of the string quartet into its later structures, the Western historical cannon works as development in itself; Debussy’s advancement of the cannon would not be possible without the works of Haydn, nor any other composer who stretched limits of form, melody, and harmony throughout the rest of the Classical and Romantic eras. Just as well, successors such as Bartok would not have the same interpretation of the string quartet genre without Debussy’s innovation and ingenuity. Altogether, French Impressionism plays an essential role in the transition of the string quartet from Classical to Twentieth Century, as shown by Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, No. 1.
- For performance recordings and performers’ insights, please follow the link below.
Bartok, Bela, String Quartet No. 4. (New York: Boosey and Hawks, 1946).
Debussy, Claude, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. (Composer’s manuscript with annotations, 1893). Bibliothèque du Conservatoire de Musique Paris.
Haydn, Joseph, String Quartet in C Major No. 3, Op. 76. (Urtext, 1977).
Jarocinski, Stephan, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism. (London: Eulenburg Books, 1976), 11-13.
Parks, Richard S, The Music of Claude Debussy, (trans. Rollo H. Myers. New York: Yale University Press, 1989), 72.
Samu, Margaret, “Impressionism: Art and Modernity.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last modified October, 2004. Accessed April 22, 2014. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/imml/hd_imml.htm.
 Samu, Margaret, “Impressionism: Art and Modernity.”–Source used throughout remainder of this paragraph and analysis for basic information of French Impressionist history.
 Jarocinski, Stephan, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, 11.
 Parks, Richard, The Music of Claude Debussy, 72.
 Jarocinski, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, 12-13.
 Lecture Notes: Prof. Gerald Hoekstra, Music History 241, Fall 2013.
 Urtext Score, Haydn.
 Composer’s Manuscript, Debussy.
 Parks, Richard, The Music of Claude Debussy, 72.
 Boosey & Hawks, The String Quartets of Bela Bartok.
 Bartok score introductory notes, Boosey & Hawks.
 A token of gratitude to those involved in the performance recordings and above insights.