Schroeder Premieres

Antonin Dvorak             

Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1895)

On December 18/19, 1896, Alwin Schroeder gave the US premiere of the complete concerto, with Emil Paul conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  While Dvorak biographer John Clapham gives credit for the American premiere to Franz Listemann, who was the soloist in a New York Symphony Society concert two weeks earlier, Listemann only played the second and third movements. This is confirmed by both the written program in the New York Philharmonic's digital archive and Krehbiel's scathing criticism in the New York Tribune of both the work and its "unsatisfactory" performance.  Reviews of the Symphony Society's Dec. 6 concert in other New York papers do not even mention that the concerto movements had been on the program. By contrast, about a dozen reviews in the Boston press speak at length on the success of Schroeder's interpretation, although many felt that the concerto itself did not represent Dvorak's best work and was "not one to grow enthusiastic over." (Louis C. Elson in Boston Daily Advertister, Dec. 21, 1896, p. 5)

          Schroeder's role in the composition of the concerto received renewed attention in 2014, when Jeffrey Solow and the New York Violoncello Society arranged a performance of the work from a manuscript copy of the solo part that had been in Schroeder's possession. Schroeder's solo part seems to reflect the state of the concerto when Schroeder and Dvorak played through it in February 1895, before the composer changed the ending and dedicatee Hanus Wihan revised some of the solo passages. The 1896 BSO program note on the concerto magnifies Schroeder's participation in the creative process by asserting that not only had Dvorak consulted with Schroeder about the solo part, but that Schroeder himself had actually composed "many of the bravura passages." One review parroted this claim, while another insisted that it made "a mountain out of a molehill." (unidentified press clipping in BSO Archive)

          Taken together, the reviews of Schroeder's 1896 Dvorak concerto performances provide an extensive exposition on the perceived qualities and strengths of his playing. They also paint a poignant picture of the occasion, from the moment that "Mr Schroeder walked from his accustomed place in the orchestra [and] was given a hearty round of applause" (Boston Globe, Dec. 20, 1896, p. 16) to the "appreciative and prolonged applause and the many stormy recalls that followed the close of his efforts.” (Boston Herald, Dec. 20, 1896, p. 7) "At the close of Mr. Schroeder’s performance he bowed repeatedly in acknowledgement of the hearty applause, accepted the congratulations of the leader of the orchestra, and then stepped back to his place among the other ’cellos to play his part in the rest of the concert." (Boston Post, Dec. 20, 1896, p. 2) 

          Schroeder reprised the Dvorak concerto with the BSO during the 1899-1900 season, first on tour in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and New York (Carnegie Hall, Dec. 13, 1899), then at Boston Music Hall (Jan. 5/6, 1900). In the meantime Leo Stern, the first cellist to perform the concerto, had visited the US and played it in New York and Chicago, to mixed reviews that critiqued Stern's unsure intonation and lack of feeling. Schroeder's interpretation earned him renewed critical success in Boston, with the caveat that "not even the genius of Alwin Schroeder... could give it a title to the affections of a discriminating audience.” (Boston Daily Advertiser, Jan. 8, 1900, p. 5) 

          The quality of his New York performance provoked some debate. The point in question was to what extent Schroeder's intonation in the first movement had been impure. The New York Times noted significant lapses in intonation, prompting a letter to the editor in Schroeder's defense. The critic stood his ground with the following argumentation: “The musical editor of THE TIMES is also well acquainted with the Dvorak ’cello concerto. He is aware that Mr. Schroeder assisted Dr. Dvorak in writing it, actually writing some of the solo passages himself—a fact which seems to have escaped the correspondent. The difficulty of the work is conceded, and Mr. Schroeder’s high standing as a virtuoso has frequently been mentioned in this paper. If he were not so great an artist, the fact that he did not play in tune would have occasioned less surprise...”  (New York Times, Dec. 17, 1899, p. 20) 

          Schroeder did not play the Dvorak concerto again after the January 1900 performances in Boston. Later BSO principal cellists took up the work, including Heinrich Warnke, whose 1905 Carnegie Hall performance of the concerto occasioned this apologetic commentary on cello technique: "Slips of intonation...call for little comment. It is so difficult to play high up (or down) on the 'cello's fingerboard that an expression of Dr. Johnson's pious wish, "Would to God, it were impossible!" always seems justified." (Henry E. Krehbiel in New York Tribune, Nov. 10, 1905, p. 11) When another Schroeder successor, Otto Urack, played it for his BSO solo debut in Nov. 1912, the leading Boston music critic glossed over the soloist's "excellent qualities," while writing at length on his wish that "'cello concertos would disappear from the programs of symphony concerts... this one of Dvorak's is not an exception." (Philip Hale in Boston Herald, Nov. 30, 1912, p. 11)