Critical Notes Series: Herbert's Cello Concerto No. 1 (first edition)

Today, Victor Herbert is best remembered for his operettas, but he was an accomplished cellist, a student of the infamous Cossmann, and a composer of some lovely cello works. As much as it is difficult to believe, Herbert's Cello Concerto No. 1 has not been published until now. Composed in 1884, while Herbert resided in Stuttgart, the first cello concerto has been circulated in the manuscript form via paid reprinting companies such as Kalmus and Luck's Music Library but never properly engraved or published. Today marks a momentous occasion when this masterpiece is published for the first time in 2021 by YL Edition in a beautifully engraved, newly created piano reduction and cello part. We call it the "first edition," dedicated to the memory of Lynn Harrell, who was the first cellist to record this concerto. You may purchase your copy at this link: Cello Concerto No. 1 (first edition)

We are happy to bring to the world the "first edition," dedicated to the memory of Lynn Harrell, who was the first cellist to record this concerto. We would like to thank the Victor Herbert Foundation, Alyce Mott, and the Library of Congress for giving us permission to use these invaluable sources. 

Our edition is based on 3 copies of the manuscript cello solo part in Herbert's hand, and the holograph orchestra score, housed at the Library of Congress. All of the sources can be sparse at times with regard to slurring, dynamics, and articulations. As a cellist, Herbert was probably changing bowings/slurring for each performance, as most string players do. The cadenza of 49 bars was left incomplete. Herbert wrote a partial cadenza in one of the solo part manuscripts, as well as the orchestra score. The editor has composed the rest of the cadenza in Herbert's style, using and developing thematic material from the movement.

Lynn Harrell and Mark Kosower composed their own cadenzas for their recordings.

Movement I

Much of Herbert's first concerto is joyful, sometimes nostalgic. It has none of the angst of the second concerto (1894), which inspired Dvorak to write his B minor concerto later that year. Herbert begins his first concerto with a woodwind fanfare in D major, a march reminiscent of Wagner. Especially sweet is the diminished harmony in m. 3, with its accented passing note C#. Marked "Allegro con spirito," originally "Allegro maestoso," the movement promises to be a fun sonata form, but Herbert does the unexpected, presenting the opening movement in ternary form (ABA). Each section is self-contained in its respective key, D major - F major - D major. Herbert makes the long-term modulations during the tuttis between the sections. The opening tutti is not quite a sonata-form exposition. The first 16 bars would constitute the "first theme," but mm. 17-26 set up the soloist with a dominant pedal. However, mm. 17-26 are important because they contain the musical cell that Herbert develops at length in the F major B section. The B section is the only part of the piece that is orchestrated with a harp. A trombone choir A major sets up the soloist to improvise a cadenza, which then brings the return of the A theme and short closing tutti.

Movement II

The Andante movement is a nostalgic piece that could have easily been composed by Grieg, with Herbert's use of orchestration, harmonies, and melodic gestures. But Herbert brings a twist on this slow movement, marking the middle section, "Scherzo vivace." A slow movement with a fast middle section is not new to Herbert. Beethoven was doing this as early as his Op.18, No. 2 string quartet (1799). Lalo's cello concerto (1876) contains a fast, scherzo-like section in the slow movement, which comes back verbatim two times in the ABAB form. The earliest cello concerto to call the middle section of the slow movement "Scherzo" is Julius Klengel's Cello Concerto No. 2, composed a year before Herbert's concerto, in 1883. Klengel was an eminent cellist, composer, and pedagogue. Undoubtedly, Herbert knew Klengel's playing and work. The tutti at m. 139 almost has a Mahlerian sound in its orchestration and harmonies, particularly reminiscent of his lighter scherzos. This is just an observation and it is unlikely that Herbert and Mahler crossed paths in 1884 or before. Herbert's Scherzo transitions back to the Andante via two very high harmonics on the A string, A and B. The movement ends on a high A harmonic.

Movement III

The finale is a humorous polka (not a polonaise, as one author calls it). The rondo theme, in this sonata-rondo movement, gives a nod to other light opera composers such as Offenbach and Bizet, but with an earthy tone, something akin to Grieg. After the second tutti, Herbert brings in what could be the second theme, in G minor, but this movement is too light to stay there. This theme, complete as it is, is just an overly dramatic passing shadow towards Herbert's musical quip in B-flat major (later in D major). This jestful section has laughing bassoons and French horns, flirtatious upper winds, incomplete phrases, jerky harmonic movement, and a nod to Klengel's Concerto No. 2 finale. The coda of Herbert's finale is a whirlwind of parallel diminished harmonies with a perpetual motion solo cello, reminiscent of one of David Popper's codas.

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