(b. Mühlhausen, 8 September 1841 – d. Prague, 1 May 1904)
Rondo for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94
Antonín Dvořák’s Rondo for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94 in g minor is a one-movement work originally composed for solo cello and piano. The work is one of three that Dvořák dedicated to Bohemian cellist Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920). Wihan premiered the work in Chrudim, Bohemia on 6 January 1892 where he was on a tour of the country with the composer, who served as a pianist for the concerts, and violinist Ferdinand Lachner. Dvořák, noting that there was no solo music on any of the programs to feature Wihan’s talents, composed the work and it is said that he wrote it in one day, on Christmas 1891.
One year later, in 1893, while working in New York City, Dvořák would rearrange the piano part of the work for a chamber orchestra comprised of two oboes, two bassoons, two timpani tuned in G and D, and strings. As Jan Smaczny has written in his monograph, Dvořák: Cello Concerto (1999: 12), this arrangement demonstrates the composer’s thought process about the most effective and appropriate instrumental combinations to play a piece that featured the cello as a solo instrument. The orchestral version is much more dramatic than the original version for cello and piano because of the new and interesting timbres that are presented by the orchestra. The piece is composed in a relatively high register for the instrument, one that exploits the cello’s ability to play song-like melodies in a lyrical manner. Wihan was known to have a penchant for playing trills in the instrument’s upper register, something that Dvořák exploited in the work’s composition. In all, this work highlights the player’s virtuosity.
This was one of Dvořák’s few compositions (at least in its reworking) to feature the cello with some semblance of an orchestra; despite Wihan’s request for a cello concerto, the composer maintained that concerti were not ideal vehicles to feature the cello because of the instrument’s need to project over a full orchestra, something that was beyond its natural acoustic capabilities. He felt that the cello was most suited to chamber music and orchestral music in which it was not featured as a solo instrument.
Dvořák had a clear preference for composing chamber music and he often wrote such works at pivotal moments in his life. Aside from the Bohemian tour, Dvořák, shortly before this piece was composed, had just signed a contract with the National Conservatory of Music in the United States, which was an important period in his career. As the title implies, the work is composed in the Classical tradition using rondo form but also features music styles used by other Romantic composers such as Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Like many of Dvořák’s pieces, this work features a jaunty, dance-like Slavic theme, giving the work an element of nationalism. Though Dvořák usually never directly quoted folksongs, his musical themes, such as the one found here, are composed to stylistically evoke Bohemian folk music. The main rondo theme has a tinge of sadness and each time it repeats, it does so with various virtuosic elements added in each episode. The piece also features two contrasting countersubjects, one comprised of a lyrical, arching melodic theme and the second featuring rapid triplets. With each episode, there are tempo changes and changes in emotion.
The orchestration of the work presents various unique characteristics, such as the use of the timpani in its quietest volume to support the cello line in several points throughout the piece. Smaczny makes several comparisons of the Rondo with the Cello Concerto, which was also composed for Wihan, including some of the solo cello figurations and the orchestral unison that accompanies the opening presentation of the rondo theme (1999: 13). The piece closes in a quiet, subdued manner that is said to be technically difficult for the player. The Rondo is clearly an early attempt to feature the cello as a solo instrument and he would use the information obtained through composing this work in writing his Cello Concerto in b minor, Op. 104 in 1894-1895. The work’s folk-like quality also foreshadows that of the New World Symphony, Op. 95, which was composed a few short months after the Rondo.
Reba A. Wissner, Ph.D., 2017
For performance material please contact Boosey & Hawkes, Berlin