Birth of a Cello Concerto

Millions of concertgoers, not to mention a few thousand-or-so cellists, have every reason to be eternally grateful the American operetta and light opera king Victor Herbert.

But for him, Dvořák would not have written his popular Cello Concerto in B minor which features in the opening concert of the 2018-2019 Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 5th of October.

No-one, except Dvořák himself, would have been surprised that he completed the concerto in early 1895, his last year as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York!

With a successful violin concerto and piano concerto to his name, he long resisted writing a cello concerto, despite much petitioning – he did actually write one with piano accompaniment some 30 years earlier.

He couldn’t hear the cello in a solo capacity – fine orchestral instrument, entirely deficient for a solo concerto. Josef Michl, a student of Dvořák, said the composer “was fond of the middle register, but complained about a nasal high register and a mumbling bass.”

So what caused the late-in-life change of tune?

The answer is hearing Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No 2, it is said, at least twice when the eventual composer of such immortal lighter classics as Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland premiered it in 1894 at the National Conservatory of Music where he taught.

Herbert, Irish-born (1859), German-raised, American-domiciled (from 1886), was a celebrated cellist and conductor, along with being a highly prolific and successful composer.

The bulk of what might be called his ‘classical music output’ dates from before 1890 and, on the strength of his Second Cello Concerto, is not insignificant.

Stylistically, a million miles away from Naughty Marietta, its general outlook is reflective with much introspection, mostly confined to the central movement in Dvořák’s concerto and vastly superior in imagination and treatment.

An educated guess would be that it was this element of Herbert’s concerto that perhaps appealed to Dvořák and inspired the consummate masterpiece that is his Cello Concerto.

The soloist with the Hallé on the 5th of October is Laura van der Heijden, winner of the 2012 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition who is carving out an impressive career her herself.

Despite her name, she is British, born in Sussex to a Dutch father and Swiss mother!