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concerto for piano and orchestra

COMPOSED August 1876 - 14 September 1876 (revision 1883(?))
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE 24 March 1878, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) Karel Slavkovsky (piano), "Filharmonie" Orchestra, conductor Adolf Cech
FIRST EDITION Julius Hainauer, 1883, Vratislav
MAIN KEY G minor
INSTRUMENTATION 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets,
timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + piano solo
1. Allegro agitato
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Finale. Allegro con fuoco
DURATION approx. 38 min.

composition history

While Dvorak’s music for solo piano represents a considerable share of his musical legacy, and his group of chamber works with piano are also a significant part of this, the Piano Concerto in G minor is his only work for piano and orchestra in his entire oeuvre. If we discount his early concerto for cello with piano accompaniment, it is also the first of the composer’s three instrumental concertos (later followed by the violin and cello concertos). Dvorak was a fine pianist, but never a virtuoso in the true sense of the word. He was well aware of this, and accordingly restricted his occasional appearances on the concert platform to performances within an ensemble or together with vocal soloists whom he would accompany at the keyboard. To this day we are unaware of the reasons which led him to choose the piano as the solo instrument for the first of his concertante works with orchestra. Although there is no direct documentation in existence, Dvorak literature commonly states that the composer – at that time not very well known – opted for the piano concertante form for “practical” reasons: he had great hopes in its performance by the excellent young pianist Karel Slavkovsky, who showed a lively interest in new works by Czech composers and took the initiative by presenting them at his concerts. This supposition is also supported by the fact that Slavkovsky did indeed perform the work’s premiere later on. Dvorak worked on this concerto for about one month, at the end of August and beginning of September 1876, soon after completing his third cycle of Moravian Duets, Op. 32. He dedicated the piece to leading aesthetician and music critic of his day Eduard Hanslick as an expression of his appreciation for the attention the latter devoted to his work.

score of the 1st movement 
The final shape of the piano concerto was the result of countless revisions and adjustments the composer made while he was finishing the work at the end of the summer of 1876, and of many others undertaken before its publication (1883). In the intervening period the score passed through the hands of a number of publishers and pianists and it is feasible that the composer decided to make certain revisions on the basis of their observations. At the beginning of the 21st century the Moravian Provincial Museum in Brno unearthed a hitherto unknown copy of the concerto which proved to be an early version of the score. Research carried out by musicologist Ludmila Smidova shows that the final version reflects much greater elaboration of the solo part, giving rise to a more ostentatious virtuosity and a broader range of expressional means, also a more colourful instrumentation, and interventions in the musical development of the thematic texture. The original version of the work thus provides, above all, an important document of the composer’s creative process.  

score of the 3rd movement

general characteristics

Although, in its external formal disposition, the work adheres to the traditional arrangement in three movements, its overall conception defies the then common notion of the Romantic piano concerto. In his stylisation of the solo part, Dvorak deliberately refutes the established canon of expressional means cultivated by the Chopin-Liszt tradition, namely emphasis on the striking technical difficulty of dazzling virtuoso passages which, at the time, were routinely associated with the universal idea of the concertante style. Moreover, the mutual relationship of the roles assigned to the solo instrument and the orchestra does not correspond to established conventions: Dvorak here decided to overturn the traditional concertante principle of alternating sections in which the orchestra is the dominant player with brilliant passages from the soloist, by creating a musical current which is almost symphonic in nature. The piano part is incorporated into the intellectual weave of the composition and, as an equal partner to the orchestra, shares in the development of the thematic material. The main emphasis, then, is not focused on the technical proficiency of the performer and his instrument, but instead on musical content alone. In opting for this interpretation of the genre (also manifested later in the violin and cello concertos), Dvorak’s work finds a close affinity with the piano concertos of Johannes Brahms. In fact, Brahms’s first piano concerto in D minor is sometimes cited as possible inspiration for Dvorak’s own composition. This theory is, however, improbable, since Brahms’s work had yet to be performed in Prague at this point, and Dvorak could not have been familiar with it even through his acquaintance with Brahms – which was only formed over a year later.

formal structure and content

The first movement of the concerto is written in a broadly diverging sonata form, which treats three central themes. The mood of the movement is chiefly determined by the nature of the main and closing themes, typical for their atmosphere of majestic solemnity. An effective contrast is created by the secondary theme in B flat major, whose carefree spirit conjures up the world of the Slavonic Dances. The complexly structured development section is one of the longest in the composer’s oeuvre. It comprises two major sections, the first of which treats the subsidiary theme, while the second works with the main theme. At the end of the development we are given a glimmer of a highly distinctive motif (first in the French horns and then, immediately afterwards, in the oboes) which, in its rhythmical contours, is strongly reminiscent of the main theme of the first movement of the New World Symphony. After the regular recapitulation comes a solo cadenza as one of the few external traits of the concertante style which Dvorak preserved in this work (in his later violin and cello concertos he left out the cadenza altogether).

The second movement in slow tempo comprises two fundamental themes, of which the first is unusual for its almost complete absence of more marked rhythmical elements: apart from a slight surge at the end of the last bar, it consists entirely of crochet values. The second subject, in its melodic ornamentation, gentle instrumentation of the orchestral accompaniment, and in its overall character, recalls the free movements of Fryderyk Chopin’s piano concertos. The middle part of the movement is certainly more dramatic and is constructed on the basis of the final rhythmical element of the main theme.

The third movement treats three themes, the first two typified by strong rhythmical ideas. The first is stylised in the manner of a toccata, while the second is almost dance-like in character. The third theme introduces an effective contrast in its lyrical melodic line. In terms of form, the movement is a combination of sonata form and rondo.

premiere and subsequent performances

Dvorak’s piano concerto was premiered in Prague on 24 March 1878 by pianist Karel Slavkovsky, with Adolf Cech as conductor. The concerto was performed several times during Dvorak’s lifetime: in London on 13 October 1883 (piano: Oscar Beringer, conductor: August Manns), in Prague on 4 January and 26 March 1884 (piano: Ella Modricka, conductor: Adolf Cech), in Berlin on 21 November 1884 (piano: Anna Groser, conductor: Antonin Dvorak), again in London on 6 May 1885 (piano: Franz Rummel, conductor: Antonin Dvorak), and in Prague once more on 12 March 1898 (piano: Josef Ruzicka, conductor: Oskar Nedbal).

first edition

Dvorak offered the piano concerto to several publishers (Simrock, Ed. Bote und G. Bock, Hofmeister, Lienau /Schlesinger/, August Cranz), but didn’t have any luck. Seemingly, the fact that the concerto was insufficiently “virtuoso” influenced publishers’ willingness to bring out a work of this nature (with respect to future sales). This is reflected, for example, in the statement of Berlin publisher Robert Lienau dated 2 July 1879: “While I would very much like to print a piano concerto at this time, I cannot decide immediately to take on yours. Like Beethoven, you choose to merge the piano closely with the orchestra and this may not appeal to today’s concert artists. [...] I will state here, however, that, if I were to accept the piano concerto, I could only offer a modest fee, since it is extremely costly to publish such works.” In the end the concerto was accepted for publication by Julius Hainauer in Vratislav, and this seven years after it was written, in 1883.

the “Kurz” version and contemporary performance practices

The original solo part of Dvorak’s piano concerto is exceptionally difficult (it was even once described as unplayable, or as having been written for “two right hands”) while, from the audience’s point of view, it doesn’t dazzle with the kind of virtuosity typical of Liszt’s concertos. This contradiction led pianists to regard the performance of the work as an unrewarding task: great effort was required for the study and performance of the work, yet there was no fitting “effect” to provide a balance. Eminent Czech pianist and piano teacher Vilem Kurz therefore decided to revise the piano part (these revisions did not concern the orchestral score) in such a way that it would correspond more to the conventional idea of the piano setting and would be more “comfortable” to play. In certain places he simplified passages that were technically too difficult; conversely, at other points in the work he added octaves and chords in order to ensure that the solo instrument would be heard over the orchestra. Adapted in this way, the concerto was first performed in Prague in 1919 by Kurz’s daughter, the pianist Ilona Kurzova, the Czech Philharmonic and Vaclav Talich. Kurz’s version soon found its way onto concert platforms, also thanks to Kurz’s pupil, the pianist Rudolf Firkusny, who performed it to appreciative audiences all over the world (although, towards the end of his concert career, Firkusny returned to Dvorak’s original score). For many decades Kurz’s version pushed the primary concerto into the background. The first important pianist to promote interest in Dvorak’s original was Sviatoslav Richter. He was unusually fond of the work, he consistently respected the composer’s original notation and frequently performed it at his concerts. His interpretation of Dvorak’s work was so convincing that one could, without exaggeration, state that Richter is responsible for the rehabilitation of the concerto in its original form. More recently, the task of defending Dvorak’s original was taken up by Andras Schiff, who initiated and financially supported the publication of a facsimile of the composer’s manuscript. In addition to the orthodox exponents of one or other version, many pianists today opt for a combination of both versions. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is the artist behind one of these compromise variants.