Friday, 2 November 2018


Antonín Dvořák
Visitors to the American cultural center in New York presently have the rare opportunity to view for the first time on American soil,* the celebrated Cello Concerto in B minor of 20th century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, composed some 123 years ago from the iconic musician's U.S. home (since demolished) located in the heart of New York city at 327 East 17th Street - the very same house in which the temporary emigré composed his famous "From the New World" symphony.

Dvořák first arrived on U.S. soil on the 27th of  September 1892 following negotiations with the now defunct American National Conservatory of Music's founder and patroness Jeannette Thurber to take over the post of Director, which had begun one year earlier while the composer was still residing in Czechoslovakia.

He would begin his new position to the handsome salary of 15,000 USD (35,000 gulden) – thirty times the amount offered to him by the Conservatoire at Prague, and more than enough to ensure a lifetime of financial stability for the composer and his young family. Half of the salary was to be paid before Dvořák headed West, with the rest of the annual sum slated to be doled out in installments, with each installment scheduled to be paid and received by the composer one month in advance.

It would be toward the end of Dvořák's time in America that the now internationally celebrated composer would pen the cello concerto – moreover, it would be the last composition of the musician to have been completed in the country, and the last solo concerto he would compose.

Dvořák's 104th opus was written at the behest of the cellist Hanuš Wihan, who had repeatedly pressured Dvořák to compose a concerto for the instrument, requests that were consistently rejected. Dvořák had previously opposed the idea of a writing a solo concerto for the instrument, citing it's “nasal” high register and “mumbling bass:” (“it whinges up above, and grumbles down below.” )

Upon the completion of the work's first movement, the composer famously reflected upon his own bewilderment that he would have given in to Wihan, considering his distaste for the idea of composing such a piece for the instrument. In a letter to confidante Alois Gobl, Dvořák humorously quipped:

“I’ve just finished the first movement of a concerto for the cello!! Don’t be surprised; I was surprised myself, and I still wonder why I chose to embark upon something like this.”

It is quite likely that Dvořák had made the decision to relent following the successful run of the Cello concerto in E minor of fellow professor at the Conservatory, Victor Herbert, of which Dvořák had heard two satisfactory performances in 1894.

Hanuš Wihan would introduce
the idea of a cello concerto to

Dvořák - many of his attempts
were made in vain.
Much scandal world precipitate the premiere of Dvořák's Cello concerto in B minor prior to its debut in England on 19 March 1896. 

Antonín had wanted Wihan to perform the works' public debut as he had privately one year earlier in Lužany, however Francesco Berger, Secretary of the London Philharmonic Society, who had agreed to stage the world premiere in London, refused to postpone the concert to coincide with Wihan's downtime from touring with the Bohemian Quartet, of which the latter was contractually bound. The English cellist Leo Stern was to be hired in his stead.

A defiant Dvořák initially refused to attend the premiere, much to the
“great embarrassment” and frustration of Berger. By now, word of the Czech composer's success in the USA had spread to Europe, and the news of an impending world premiere staged on English soil had led to much public anticipation. Placards and advertisements promoting the upcoming event, and of Dvořák's presence in London were abundant.

It was only at the (once more) behest of Wihan that Dvořák (again) relented. The composer agreed to supervise rehearsals with Stern in Prague until such time as Antonín felt assured of a successful performance.

By early March, all was settled, and the scheduled premiere was given the green light by the composer. Dvořák himself would conduct at the works' debut from London's Queen's Hall.

Two months following the successful premiere, Dvořák would leave New York for good – returning to Bohemia on the 27th of April, 1895.[1]

The much valued original manuscript of Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor, presently housed at the Czech Center on New York's 321 E 73rd St., is a great boon to the city which the composer once called home. 

The preservation - or lack thereof - of historical artifacts related to the composer's tenure in the city has been a source of some conflict in the not too distant past.

A row between the Beth Israel Hospital and city's Landmarks Commission, backed by a coalition which included the President of Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel, "Amadeus" director Miloš Forman, German conductor Kurt Masur and French-born Chinese-American cellist, Yo-Yo Ma famously ignited in the Big Apple in 1991 following the decision to redact the composers home on East 17th street from its Landmark status in order to build in its place a hospice for those suffering from AIDS.

The front facade of the since demolished
New York residence of
Antonín Dvořák,
who lived in the home from 1892-1895.
The decision to demolish the (albeit renovated) structure divided both the health and arts communities, many of whom belonging to the latter group felt themselves in a state of shock. For them, and for the Czech-American community, the home represented more than just a location in which a beloved icon composed his most celebrated works - to them, it also served as a symbol of resistance and a model of revolutionary spirit: just days after the silent attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a solemn ceremony was held in the home in which domestic and foreign dignitaries, in addition to esteemed members of the musical arts community (including Bruno Walter, Fritz Kreisler and Arthur Judson) had gathered to voice an impassioned stance on progression in politics.

New York's residing mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia introduced the event, invoking the spirit of Dvořák:

“[he] produced much that will live forever, and his music will be played and his name will be honored when the names of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Mikado [sic] will be found only by referring to the criminal[s] ... of history.” 

These opening remarks were followed by a powerful testament by Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister of the Czech Government-in-Exile and son of Czechoslovakia's first President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk:

“We Czechoslovakians and Americans of Czechoslovakian descent swear by the memory of Dvořák that we will do everything in our power to help the new world, because by so doing we will help to compose the real 'new world symphony' of free people."

Masaryk's presence at the ceremony was no small matter: it was his father, alongside American President Woodrow Wilson who succeeded in establishing Czechoslovakia as an independent nation following WWI. Dvořák's home, and his success in America was very much symbolic of these endeavors. 

Dvořák's very presence as Director of Thurber's National Conservatory of Music - an elite institution that dared to celebrate the music of both women and African Americans was (and remains today) justly considered revolutionary for its time. His success in New York helped place Czech music (and as a result, Czechoslovakia itself) on the musical world map, and his public championing for the inclusion of "negro music" in the West effectively changed the color palette of Western classical music, and opened doors for composers of color and for the initiation of progressive, race and sex-tolerant discussion.

For Czech-Americans and fans of Dvořák, the return of the Cello Concerto to ground zero may serve as a reminder of the composer's legacy, both at home and abroad.

The manuscript will be on display at the Czech Center Gallery until November 9. It serves as the focal point of the month-long celebration at the institution of the founding of Czechoslovakia as an independent nation in 1918.[2] 

*This will mark the first time in its history for the manuscipt to be viewed by the public. An early manuscript of the concerto made a quiet appearance in 2014 for a reserved audience of scholars and selected American cellists at the Czech Center.

Listen below to a breathtaking performance of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák's prized Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191. Cellist Jacqueline du Pré performs under Barenboim:

Did You Know?

London's Queen's Hall, where Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor held it's world premiere in 1896 was a forerunner of the English capital's renowned Royal Albert Hall.

It was the original home of the famous Proms concerts, and served as home base for both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. Celebrated as the "musical centre of the Empire," it housed performances of major movers and shakers of late 19th and 20th century western classical music, including performances by Debussy, Elgar, Ravel and Richard Strauss.

The concert hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during WWII by German forces in an offensive strike that has become known as the London Blitz. Despite public outcry for the hall to be rebuilt, the English government declined. The annual Proms celebration would henceforth be moved to the Royal Albert Hall, with the general concert season being held at the Royal Festival Hall.
[1] A myriad of factors may have played a role in Dvořák's decision to leave the US. The composer is believed to have become homesick over his beloved Bohemia - greatly missing his children, who, with the exception of son Oskar who had traveled with Dvořák and his wife to New York, visited only on holidays.

Compounding Dvořák's already increasing anxiety was the unsettling news of the ill state of health that had befallen Josefina Kaunitzová – the composers sister-in-law and the former object of his romantic inclinations – who was in the final days of her life. Dvořák would honor the one time recipient of his courtship by inserting into the concerto a quotation from Kaunitzová's favorite song “Kéž duch můj sám” (Leave me Alone) from his Four Songs cycle (op. 82, no 1).

To make matters worse, America was bowing under the weight of its first major economic crisis to affect financial institutions (dubbed "The Panic of 1893"), the effects of which reached even the Conservatory board. As long term sponsors began to file out, so too did the remaining funds of Dvořáks salary.

In a series of letters written to confidante Emanuel Chvala in January 1895, Dvořák expressed his frustration over his situation and his yearning for more familiar ground:
“I will thank God when I am among my own people once more and perhaps sitting somewhere in the woods of Vysoka...In short, the best thing is to sit somewhere in Vysoka, it is the best place to recoup my energy, I’ll be able to rest and my happiness will be complete...We miss our children and we can’t wait to set sail again. Time goes slowly for us now, we go from day to day, counting how many of them we must strike off the calendar.”

[2] Czechoslovakia, formerly under the clutch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was officially proclaimed an independent entity in Prague on 28 October 1918 in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House, to much patriotic sentiment.
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