Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major is believed by music historians to have been composed between 1761 and 1765. Dedicated to the composer’s good friend Joseph Franz Weigl, who served as the principal cellist of Prince Nicolaus’s Esterházy Orchestra during this time, the work was lost for nearly 200 years before a copy of its score resurfaced at the Prague National Museum in 1961.
Musicologist Oldřich Pulkert was responsible for finding the score amidst other manuscripts he was charged with organizing at the time. One year after its re-emergence, the concerto received its 20th century premiere by Miloš Sádlo and the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras) on 19 May 1962.
Though the original manuscript of the completed concerto is presumed to have been destroyed by time, an early draft of the beginning of the first movement’s principal theme survives in Haydn’s draft catalogue of 1765. This indicates that Haydn was starting to compose his first cello concerto around the same time as his Symphonies 6,7, and 8. It would be an additional 20 years before he would write another concerto for cello, but this first foray clearly demonstrates Haydn’s mastery of instrumental writing…particularly for the string section.
With idiomatic writing that flourishes throughout, this concerto bridges the gap between the oft-used ritornello form of the baroque concerto and the sonata-allegro form which was being developed by visionary composers like Haydn throughout his lifetime. With a small accompanying ensemble (a nod to the baroque concerto grosso), Haydn places his full trust in the cello line to summon passion and vibrancy to support the efforts of the other players.
Unlike his second cello concerto, where rondo form is used in the second and third movements, all three movements of the first concerto are written in sonata form. Its structural patterning (a first movement defined by etched rhythms leading into a series of flowing second themes, a peaceful slow movement, and a brisk finale) make for a remarkable resemblance to his Violin Concerto no. 3 in A major. In fact, both pieces were composed for orchestra during the same period of the composer’s life.
The authenticity of the concerto’s authorship has been raised by several musical authorities, but many experts believe that there is enough evidence to support this being a genuine product of Haydn’s creative genius. In the slow movement of this concerto, for example, the cello enters dramatically on a long note, played while the orchestral strings relaunch the theme heard during the opening of the piece. The cello goes on to imitate this melody two measures later, a musical gesture that was characteristic of Haydn’s compositional style.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major has been recorded by many famous artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pré, Truls Mørk, and Julian Lloyd Webber. The virtuosity and passion it demands from its ensemble and soloist alike is supreme, and the SSO and Oleksa Mycyk’s take on this long-lost classic is sure to bring you to your feet.
Hear this work as part of our concert A Visit to Vienna!