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Gunther Schuller

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1945)
Publisher
Margun Music
Category
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
1945
Duration
18 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Cello
Programme Note
Gunther Schuller Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1945)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

My Cello Concerto was composed mostly in the summer of 1945 when I was nineteen, some fifty-six years ago. Tonight’s performance is a world premiere. Indeed it is the only one of my nearly 180 works—operas, symphonies, chamber music, and dozens of jazz pieces—that has never been performed.
I wrote the work for a dear friend, Walter Heermann, first cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony for nearly forty years, under Stokowski, Ysayë, Reiner and Goossens. When I came to the Cincinnati Symphony in 1943 at the age of seventeen as first horn, I immediately fell in love with Walter’s luscious cello tone, his impeccable taste and style, his consummate musicianship. In 1947 Walter retired from the Cincinnati Symphony, but after a 50-year orchestral career gave up cello playing—just my luck—within a year after I finished my Cello Concerto. He was also a fine conductor and became, for the next fifteen years, conductor of the Madison Civic Symphony in Wisconsin.
In that same town I met another excellent cellist, who was a member of the then very famous Pro Arte Quartet, in residence at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. When I showed him my Cello Concerto he became very excited, complained a little about its apparent difficulty, but vowed to find a place to perform the piece. That vow and wish of his never came true. All his and my attempts to premiere the work came to naught, probably because I was at the time still a totally unknown composer, and cellists would be asked to play the Dvorák or Haydn Cello Concertos, long before taking a chance on one by an unknown composer, barely out of his teens.
In any case, I laid the Concerto on a shelf, where it rested quietly for more than half a century. A few attempts to interest several major cellists in premiering the work, alas, also led nowhere. So after all these years I am very pleased that my dear friend Andrés Díaz has agreed to perform the work here at Brevard, giving the Music Center a world premiere.
The work is in two movements, played without pause. The first movement, marked Andante languido features the cello—and the orchestra—mostly in a lyric singing mood, with occasional more agitated episodes and a highly virtuosic cadenza interlaced, but always returning to the languid quiescent mood of the opening Andante.
The first movement ends as the cello ascends to a very high violin note over the calm strings and softest, distant brass, leading without interruption into the lively Allegro vivo second (and final) movement. It is a combination Scherzo and Finale, with the cello in its most pyrotechnic virtuosic mode. Much of this is set in asymmetric five- and seven-eight meters. A powerful unison passage for the entire orchestra suddenly interrupts the exuberant proceedings, giving the cellist a bit of a rest. But the earlier scherzo-like scampering music is recapitulated, and then transformed into a lengthy Coda. Soft buzzing, humming strings over an ostinato-bass pedal point lay down a sonic carpet, over which the dancing solo cello and jaunty fragmented woodwind phrases engage in an ongoing dialogue. Scattered pointillistic muted brass gradually enter the fray. Bitonality turns into polytonality and finally atonality, as at the final climax the solo cello is, as it were, swallowed up by the orchestra. A brief trumpet call amid wildly gyrating woodwinds and strings leads to a “sudden-death” (as in hockey overtime) ending.

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