On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Czech Philharmonic, led by its Music Director and Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov, perform a program consisting of only two works, both of them by the most famous of all Czech composers, Antonin Dvořák. This was especially appropriate as the following day, October 28th, marked the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic's independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The concert opened with a performance of the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (19894-1895) that featured Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. If the works Dvořák composed while visiting the United States aren't his greatest - though I for one strongly feel that they are - they are certainly his most popular, notably the Symphony No. 9 and the String Quartet No. 12. There was something about the Native American and Afro-American music he heard while in this country that brought out the best in the composer. The Cello Concerto, however, the last work Dvořák wrote before returning to Europe, does not show these influences as strongly. Instead, the most compelling influence on the concerto was the music of fellow European Victor Herbert who was on the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music during the period when Dvořák served as its Director. Herbert, who at the time he met Dvořák was on the cusp of beginning his career as the most famous composer of American operettas, was himself a superb cellist. His own Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor greatly affected Dvořák when he heard it performed in New York City and determined him to write his own.
Another influence on the composition of the Cello Concerto was far more personal. Dvořák intended the work as a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefina who was then suffering her final illness. He went so far as to quote in the melancholy second movement Kéž duch můj sám, Josefina's favorite among his four Op. 82 songs. It was this deep personal significance that led Dvořák to reject any changes to the piece as he had written it. This led to conflict with his friend Hanuš Wihan, the cellist for whom he had originally written the work, who had composed two cadenzas that Dvořák ultimately refused to accept.
After intermission came the final work on the program and another in a minor key, the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885). Though long overshadowed by the enormously popular No. 9, it is really the No. 7, written some eight years earlier, that is generally considered the composer's finest symphony. It also carries with it more baggage than any other of Dvořák's works. Proposed sources of inspiration range from the death of Dvořák's mother two years earlier to the arrival of a trainload of Czech political activists at the Prague railway station. It seems far more likely, however, that Dvořák, enjoying a growing international repuation ever since having won the Austrian Prize in 1876 and 1877, wanted to come up with a powerful work that would cement his position as a leading European composer. This would account for the absence of the Czech folk sources that had previously characterized Dvořák's work and in their place a far greater attention to classical structure. Dvořák had been greatly impressed by the symphonies of his mentor Brahms and no doubt wanted to compose an orchestral work of comparable stature even if different in style.
The No. 7 is filled with somber moments, most particularly in the opening and closing movements, and Dvořák himself wrote on the score the inscription "From the sad years." And then there is the funeral march in the final movement. Nevertheless, it is usually a mistake to confuse an artist's creations with his or her biography. Any sense of tragedy would more likely be due to the serious intentions Dvořák brought to this project than to any events in his personal life.
The Czech Philharmonic, though it doesn't receive as much attention as some other European orchestras, is an excellent ensemble and its leader, Semyon Bychkov, whom I had not seen in several years, a top-notch conductor. The Cello Concerto, played beautifully by Alisa Weilerstein, was especially moving at this performance.