There is always something new to discover, no matter how many times you've heard a piece. Our resident cello player, James Jacobs, joins John Banther to give you 5 things to listen for in this masterpiece that you've either missed or could experience differently. 

Show Notes

The concerto that inspired Dvorak

Victor Herbert - Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor

James Jacob's recommended listening after hearing Dvorak's Cello Concerto

Richard Strauss - Don Quixote

Ernest Bloch - Schelomo, Hebräische Rhapsodie

Edward Elgar - Cello Concerto


John Banther: I'm John Banther. And this is Classical Breakdown. From Classical WETA in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by Classical WETA's resident cello player, James Jacobs, to talk all about Dvořák's Cello Concerto. It's one of the most popular concertos, so we are presenting five things to listen for that maybe you've missed or could listen to differently in this work. From how Dvořák cleverly balances a full orchestra, how he uses the soloist as an accompaniment, a personal tribute he wrote into the music, and more.
Also, this episode was recommended by Tim Newmark on Twitter. You can follow @ ClassicalWETA to stay up to date on the podcast and let us know what you'd like to hear in a future episode.
Here's what Johannes Brahms had to say, James, after he heard Dvořák's Concerto for Cello. He said, " If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would've tried it myself." Those are some pretty interesting words from Brahms, and maybe paints a picture of what it was like for the humble cello concerto at this time.

James Jacobs: Yeah. The cello concerto was something that people were making up as they went along. The cello as a solo instrument, it seemed to be a project that individual composers took on. Pretty much everyone who has written a cello concerto sort of invented the cello concerto from scratch. And they all found their own way into balancing the cello with an orchestra. And of course that was relatively easy in the 18th century when you were just talking about strings and harpsichord, or maybe two or four winds. But once we get into the 19th century and the cello by this time is firmly established as an orchestral instrument, the kind of instrument that was designed to make other instruments sound better, that was designed to basically blend in and make a great, beautiful rich texture over which the violin and the flute could shine.
And so the idea of putting cello forward was a idea gradually picked up by different composers. Beethoven was the first one to say the cello could be equal partners in the piano. And he actually put the cello front and center in his Triple Concerto, which was something rather radical for the time. And then Schumann wrote a cello concerto that pretty much disappeared right after he wrote it, because people thought that he wasn't in his right mind at that time. Though now is actually very popular. And then there was a flurry of cello activity in the 1870s with Saint- Saëns and Lalo writing cello concertos, and Tchaikovsky writing the Rococo Variations. Though, again, even there it's like they were all working in a vacuum in separate laboratories.

John Banther: When you say that they are creating the cello concerto from scratch kind of each time, is that because each composer is seeing what's been done before and thinking I can do it differently? Or is it literally, they're not even aware of some of these other concertos? Like one by Haydn for instance, or even those sonatas by Beethoven.

James Jacobs: They weren't well known. They might have known the Beethoven sonatas, but I think they were all pretty much working, as I said, from scratch. Basically the cello concerto was such as it was, the most common ones, were ones that cellists wrote themselves that kind of came and went pretty quickly with composers like Ravel and Goltermann and Grützmacher, who you've never heard of them and there's a reason. And they're very famous to cello players like me.
And in fact, it was one such man named Victor Herbert, who was basically one of those lines who wrote a cello concert that probably is about as good as those other ones. But it's the one that Dvořák happened to hear. And that was the thing that made the difference.

John Banther: So Dvořák heard this concerto by Herbert, which I've not even heard. And then from that, it seems like he was then motivated to... well, wait, the cello this does sound nice. This can fit within the orchestra. Because when we heard that Brahms quote earlier, he sounded pretty surprised. It even sounds like Dvořák was a little surprised how good his concerto ended up being. So it seems like the whole thing started off with that concerto that he saw performed by Herbert.

James Jacobs: Well Dvořák seemed to always take to the cello. And in fact, when he was in his 20s at the very beginning of his career, he wrote an hour long cello concerto that he never orchestrated, it just exists for cello and piano. And again, it was like no other concerto that had ever been written before. And there's a reason why you haven't heard it, but it's got some moments. And certainly it was important for him in terms of his development.
So obviously he was very fond of it, but the idea of actually writing a concerto really had to do with his friend Hanuš Wihan, who had been bugging him about a concerto and Dvořák had pretty much been dismissing him until he heard Victor Herbert's concerto. But the point being is he played his role in inspiring Dvořák to write a concerto, nothing like anything that had ever been written before for cello and orchestra.

John Banther: And Dvořák Jacque premiered this in 1896?

James Jacobs: Right. So he had completed this, or thought he had completed this in February of 1895, just before he went back to Bohemia, which he was very much ready to get back to. He had become somewhat disillusioned with New York and America, by the end of his reign there, his tenure there. And then when he came back, he found out that his sister- in- law Josefina Čermáková was also his first love. Like Mozart, he fell in love as a kid and then ended up marrying his first love's sister. And I guess that's a thing.

John Banther: Apparently.

James Jacobs: So Dvořák did that, but of course he never really got over his first love. And Josefina was dying. And then she did die in May of that year and he was heartbroken. And he decided to rewrite the ending of the concerto as a tribute to Josefina and he incorporated one of Josefina's favorite songs of his, called Leave Me Alone.

John Banther: Yes. And I think we'll get to that a little bit later, because we have some things to listen for within this massive concerto. We can't explore every musical aspect because it's filled with basically endless moments. Even just reading through the score, you can find all kinds of extra treasures. So we have five things to listen for that maybe you missed or maybe you could understand differently. And the first thing to listen for is just the orchestration. It's unusual to have a full orchestra in a concerto, meaning not just the entire string section, but also a full wind section and a full brass section down from horns, trumpets, trombones down to tuba. And this is yes, the first cello concerto that has a tuba in it. And I can say as a tuba player, there are very few can concertos that we play in the orchestra with the soloist because well, the tuba was not around in Mozart's time or in Beethoven's time. So it's quite unique that he does that.
I guess a big issue was you don't want to cover the soloist. And while these instruments had been around and technology had made them more advanced, there was still this idea of I guess no one had attempted to write of concerto with the full orchestra in such a way that it fits, because the introduction is quite long. It's several minutes long. And then it slowly, slowly tapers down before we have that first entrance. Thinking of in the second movement where you have this nice kind of beautiful slow movement. Usually for a concerto, you don't usually think fortissimo brass section punching in with this daunting low line that would completely cover up the cello. But he uses it in a way that it punctuates. And then when the cello comes in again, right after that, it doesn't sound small or diminutive. It sounds even more grand for having heard that little bit we heard before.
So he's using it this way in the first movement where it's kind of towering and then it tapers off. The second movement has these huge moments where it just kind of elevates the cello, even if it's not playing at the exact same time, because of what happens in the passage before. And in the third movement, he does something very clever that we still do sometimes as tuba players today. And that's, if I'm playing fortissimo and the whole back row, the brass section's playing fortissimo, and the soloist is supposed to come in, are we going to hear them? Probably not. Right? No.
So what he does, we had this huge impact, like sforzando, followed by a very fast diminuendo in your line, it's telling you gets softer and they get soft quickly. And then the cello peeks through and just grows organically out of that sound.
And what the whole thing is, that big impact creates that sound. And then even though you're having that diminuendo, and you're getting softer, you still have that presence, even though it's softer. And that's how the cello can grow out. Today if I have a whole note that is fortissimo, I may come in fortissimo, I might back off a tiny percent. You wouldn't hear it in the audience, but it lets other textures kind of come through a little bit. And then you give it a little bit, you say, " Give it a little more gas," towards the end, to make it really, really sustained to the end. But he's using it dramatically in this way to let the cello really sing through, but still have this full, full sound.

James Jacobs: It's so theatrical. It's hard to think of another concerto for any instrument except for... well the piano concerto had always been theatrical. But the idea that Dvořák really uses the orchestra almost like lighting in a theater and you sort of feel by the time the cello comes in, there's a spotlight. And the cello is on a mountaintop declaring, declaiming to the heavens. And it's really not like anything else I can think of. It really sort of sets up the idea of the concerto as the individual versus the world. And he does this so graphically and really so beautifully with this full orchestra coming down. And in this way, he sets up the expectations for our ears so that we can have one individual cello player with just his four strings, and then this 60 or 70 piece orchestra. And we can accept that.

John Banther: That's a great first thing to listen for. Just in general, what instruments are we hearing as we're playing this? And how does that play with the cello and making it heard? Now that's the first point, what is the second thing we can listen for James?

James Jacobs: In a piano concerto it's common to have a passage in which the soloist accompanies a member of the orchestra. You hear this in Mozart, you hear this throughout the history of the concerto. That doesn't happen very often. You don't hear that as much, certainly in violin concertos. You never hear that in flute concertos. And here Dvořák is basically asserting that well, if the piano can do it, the cello can do it. The cello can have the same kind of authoritative relationship to the orchestra and share these special intimate moments with individual members of the orchestra.
And so you hear in the first movement, this beautiful passage where the cello and the flute have this duet, and it's almost like an anti duet. Because even though it fits together harmonically, it's almost like an operatic duet where you hear two singers singing about different things in different rooms. And I guess I haven't used the term operatic enough. Though I think there's something that's almost beyond opera.
But this is this particular point reminds me of opera in terms of how the cello and the flute are relating to one another. And it's almost like they're lamenting independently, but are united by music. And that's again, not something I can't think of a similar moment in any other concerto that does something quite like this.

John Banther: Shortly after this, there is an ostinato pattern where then it's like the cello is playing the accompanying part, right?

James Jacobs: Right.

John Banther: And it's this arpeggiated line. And even within that, you hear recordings where almost like a Bach cello suite where it's outlining this chord. And the first note, the downbeat is important because it's the root, it's telling us what this chord is. And the cellist is able to hold that out. It's just such a slight sustain, but it adds that emphasis on the downbeat for every time the chord changes. So they're still being soloistic. I don't think you'd be able to pull that off a full 12 person cello section, each person trying to do their own an interpretation of elongating at one particular note. But he does that here to accompany, but also have that authoritarian voice.

James Jacobs: Yes. Well, this is one of the great things about string instruments, is that ability to have those arpeggiated moments. I mean, you think of a guitar and that's what a guitar does is strum from the lowest note to the highest, or the harp. And when the string instruments do it with a bow, it has this extra power to it. And well, the cello can do that too. And then it's interesting that this is actually one of the things that well, Dvořák wrote it, but it was Hanuš Wihan's idea to have it arpgeggiated.

John Banther: Ah, that's the original cellist he wrote it for?

James Jacobs: Yes, the cellist he wrote it for. A lot of the cello part was written, the collaboration between the two of them. And it was Wihan's idea to have the arpeggiation the... because he knows, well, this is one of the really cool things that cello can do. And if you're not a cellist, you might not know about that.

John Banther: Because there's another really beautiful moment like this, where the soloist is accompanying the orchestra. It's in the second movement and the cellist comes in with this beautiful theme. And underneath it, the violins, they're playing this fast sweeping line. And it's great. And then it kind of moves on to the next thing. But later when the melody returns in the winds, the cellist, the soloist is now taking that accompanying line we heard in the violins, and now the cello player is doing this accompanying sweeping line.
And it adds a whole new texture and element that you don't hear in all those concertos like you've mentioned. You're not going to hear this for flute. You're not going to hear this for trumpet. It suits itself well to low instruments like the cello.

James Jacobs: Yes, it certainly does. And it's a way of showcasing that aspect of cello playing, which is being the accompaniment bass line and bringing it to the forefront as something that the cello can offer. And that takes us to our third point, which is something that's unique to the last movement, where the cello partners with the concert master, the principal violinist.
And that's a very bold move on Dvořák's part, to involve a solo violin and basically to remind listeners that there's this, in many ways, acoustically superior instrument that exists while you're showcasing the cello. And it shows that Dvořák is confident in its own abilities up to this point to showcase the cello, to have us be invested in its sound world and in its own unique properties. And that it could hold its own being a duet partner with the violin. And a couple of passages in the last movement that are just extraordinary and really unlike anything else that had ever been done in any other concerto. And one of the things that I would say is that it takes on, well, I mentioned the operatic quality of the cello and the flute in the first movement. And I think this takes this to another level.

John Banther: This is Pacini.

James Jacobs: Yeah, exactly.

John Banther: And I'll say, all of these points are things you brought up to me earlier. So I went back and I listened more carefully. And it's really changed how I listen to the piece, because it doesn't matter how much you know a work, there is always something new to hear or to experience differently. And we'll get to the fourth thing to listen for right after this.
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James Jacobs: Let's get to our fourth point. Dvořák revised the ending. When he got back home to Bohemia and found out that his first love and present sister- in- law Josefina Čermáková had passed away. Fortunately, he got home just in time to sort of bid her goodbye. And then she left and then he wrote this ending as a tribute to her and incorporating one of her favorite songs of his, Leave Me Alone.
I feel like this is the moment when he brings the violin back. And during the slow section to echo that song, it's now been revealed what the violin was doing there in the first place. I imagine in the original Dvořák is being dictated to by his muse, where he's taking dictations from his muse. And I'm sure it sort of surprised him, like, " Why is there a violin here?" Well, I'm just compelled to do it. And now it's like, the answer is revealed. The violin was the spirit of Josefina. The violin was the spirit all along. The violin was the spirit of his first love. It's really one of the things that sort of elevates this concerto, which was already on this elevated plane to another level that I don't think, well, frankly, I'm going to say, I don't think he gets you on anywhere else.

John Banther: Yeah. Do you have some of the words or lyrics to this song? Because the English translation, I think it's easily misunderstood for people that don't know, Leave Me Alone.

James Jacobs: Leave me to walk alone in my dreams, do not disturb the ecstasy within my heart. Leave me all the rapture, leave me the pains that have filled me ever since I saw him.

John Banther: It's an extraordinary moment. It's so touching. It's so beautifully sentimental, that it elevates the whole thing. And when you hear, when the clarinets come in with the change in harmony, from the very first notes that we heard in the symphony, now when they're coming in, it sounds so transformed. It's really one of the most touching moments, I think, in music. It might be a little much to say, but it really feels so different when the clarinets come in with a different harmony that sets this up.

James Jacobs: This is the moment where it doesn't matter how many times you hear it. And it's like, oh yeah, this is special. This is magic. This is something that is extraordinary and not really anything like else. And it evokes those emotions every time. And those clarinets, which again were apparently not part of the original version of this, the original conception for this movement. The clarinets play the motto that you hear at the very beginning of the concerto, telling us that, oh, now our journey is over. Now our journey is complete. Now we've completed this.
And that brings us to the fifth point. Which is the way that Dvořák unified this entire piece in a way similar to the way let's say Beethoven unified his fifth symphony with that four note motto. And here, the motto is long, short, short, long. And we hear that at the very beginning... and that comes back in different forms throughout all three movements. And you get that at the very beginning, obviously. But you also get that in different forms that are sort of subliminal, where we don't quite understand that what we're hearing is a transformation of that same material.

John Banther: Because where do you hear it? This long, short, short, long rhythm. It can almost mean something different depending on where you are. In the opening it sounds not foreboding, but very what's happening here? There's a story. There is an adventure that's going to be told before us.

James Jacobs: We hear it three completely different ways. Just in the first four minutes of the piece. You hear the mysterious way with the clarinets at the very beginning. And then about a minute later, when the whole orchestra plays it, it takes on this completely different character. And then when the cello player comes in a couple of minutes later, it takes on an even third character, an even third way. And it's the same four notes. And yet we feel very differently about each one of those, about whether it's something that anticipates a story being told, something that is this grand gesture and something that's this call from the mountain top.
And then he transforms this in so many different ways that are subtle. For example, when he goes... it's... but then he adds this little extra note. So he transforms this thing... into something that's a little bit more like you might hear in one of his Slavonic dances... and you hear it in all sorts of different ways. And then there's a new theme.
It's a way of transforming that theme, that rhythm... and it takes on these different characters. And it's a way of taking us through this journey where there's still this similar motto, but it can transform itself into something more lyrical or more frightening or more stately, depending on the context. And we hear that throughout the first movement, and then in the second movement.
Right? That's the rhythm again, it's long, short, short, long.... and so, again, there's this sort of subtle evocation that ties it together. And then that second theme in the second move... again, long shorts, long. Short notes and you get that there. And then in the last movement, the major theme, you get a... long, short, short, long... So you got that there, just as he sort of multiplies the short notes, sometimes he takes away the short notes. One of the major themes in the last one... again, all the different ways in which he does this throughout. So it's a unifying motto. And I think that's one things you can hear, is all the different ways in which he has different permutations of that rhythmic pattern that creates a sense of unity throughout the work.

John Banther: And this whole idea of repeating a rhythm over and over again. I mean, this is as old as time and as new as ever. It's in your favorite Taylor Swift song, it's in the Beatles, it's in ACDC. Having a short repeated hook is something we find very pleasing. And the more that we hear it, the more we like it, the more we remember it. And when it's short, you can do all those changes like you just mentioned, while still keeping it whole.
If you had a line that was 16 notes long, and it had all different kinds of rhythms and different ranges of dynamics and in pitch, you're less likely to remember that and to understand then the different ways you hear it and how to interpret that across the second movement and the third movement. But when you have this shorter idea... that's almost infinite what you can do with just those notes in regards to the harmony and to the dynamic. And then to changing things like you said, making one note, a little bit shorter. Or a few more notes, but it's still the same gesture.

James Jacobs: It's funny that you say that you talked about pop music. Because I had the feeling that if Dvořák were alive now, he would know how to be a pop composer. He had this gift that was really unique in terms of having hooks and having little cells that keep you compelled and keep going. And you hear that in his symphonies and, as I said, in the Slavonic dances and his chamber works, that comes directly from his being steeped in folk music. He knows how to take that propulsive rhythm, the idea that it comes back to dancing, it comes back to people on the land singing and stomping their feet. It's something that he has, that is his unique gift. And one of the reasons why he's one of the great composers.

John Banther: Five different things to listen for and elevate your listening abilities and appreciation of this work. The orchestration, how he uses for the first time, this full orchestra in a concerto. How the soloist accompanies different instruments in the orchestra, how the violin joins as an equal partner. Lines are almost flipped, that beautiful tribute to Josefina. And then finally how this rhythm is used and changed from the beginning to the end.
And I'll say all these things I listen for more critically and it's made me appreciate the music even more. So James, what should we listen to after appreciating this cello concerto? Where can we go for more cello action that's maybe similar?

James Jacobs: We were discussing how in this concerto that it seems like the cello takes on a role. And in fact, two years later, Richard Strauss in 1897 did exactly that in his tone poem, Don Quixote, in which the cellist takes on the title role. And then 20 years later Bloch did something similar in his tone poem, Shlomo or King Solomon. And then in 1920, Elgar wrote his cello concerto that he intended as memorial to the generation lost in World War I, and that cemented the cello's reputation as an instrument of spiritual and even heroic dimensions.

John Banther: And we'll have links to performances of that music on the show notes page classicalbreakdown. org. And now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts, Gigi Musique left of review in Apple Podcasts and gave us five stars and said " A true music education. I have learned so much from this podcast, far more than merely classical music appreciation. I am absorbing music theory from real examples, composition, concepts, vocabulary, sound design, history, and the musical developments that inform all the modern music I hear and love today." Well, thank you so much Gigi Musique for your review. If you're enjoying this podcast, please leave a review in your podcast app. And if you have any comments, questions, or ideas for episodes, you can send us an email classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. That's it for me. Do you have anything else for Dvořák, James?

James Jacobs: Dvořák is a very famous composer, but in a way he's also not well known at all. He wrote so many works and I think you should all go out and listen to something by Dvořák even if you've never heard of it. He was a very prolific composer and you should check him out because he's got a lot to offer.

John Banther: Thank you.