Tuesday, October 11, 2011

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Carter Brey's thoughts on the Dvorak Cello Concerto

“On February 8, 1895, Antonin Dvorak inserted this terse note into the manuscript of the cello concerto that he was working on at the time:

"Today on February 8 very cold in New York and a blizzard." Dvorak, nearing the end of a three-year stay in America, was living in a Gramercy Park brownstone while performing his duties as Director of the National Conservatory of Music (now the Juilliard School). He was overcome with homesickness and longed to return to his homeland, Bohemia. During the composition of the Concerto he learned of the serious illness of his sister-in-law, Josefina, for whom as a young man he had cherished an unrequited love, and gave to the solo cello in the slow movement a quotation from one of his songs ("Leave Me Alone," Opus 82) which had been a favorite of hers.

I had known this about him for many years before the first time I visited Prague, but my first sight of this fairy tale city on the banks of its river, nestled and protected between the hills of Central Europe, brought these words immediately to mind and in that instant I understood the source of the sweet melancholy that pervades this score. Being a New Yorker, I have no trouble conjuring the bitter unwelcoming conditions of February in my city; when I picture that unhappy man, untethered from his roots and his family, probably overworked and struggling in an unfamiliar language, bent over his desk in an effort to sublimate his nostalgia into little black notes on lined paper while the gales of midwinter swirled outside his window, I believe I can approach him closely as a human being through his music.

Following his return to Bohemia, news of Josefina's death reached him and he completely reworked the ending to the Concerto, quoting another part of the same song (the music this time appearing in the solo violin) and extending the coda into an agonized dying away before the stormy and joyous last bars.  Like most cellists, I struggle with this passage each time I perform it, looking for the way to express the love and loss of the composer without descending into bathos. Like all great art, this music touches us not through its biographical specificity but through its universality.”

-Carter Brey
Carter Brey will perform with the Richmond Symphony this weekend (October 15-16, 2011).