The piece is scored for a full romantic orchestra containing two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle (last movement only), and strings, and is in standard three-movement format:
Total duration: Approx. 40 minutes
In 1865, early in his career, Dvořák started a Cello Concerto in A major, (B.10). The piece was written for Ludevít Peer, whom he knew well from the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in which they both played. He handed the cello score (with piano accompaniment) over to Peer for review but neither bothered to finish the piece. It was recovered from his estate in 1925.
Wihan, among others, had asked for a cello concerto for quite some time, but Dvořák always refused, stating that the cello was a fine orchestral instrument but totally insufficient for a solo concerto. According to Josef Michl, Dvořák was fond of the middle register, but complained about a nasal high register and a mumbling bass. In a letter to a friend, Dvořák wrote that he himself was probably most surprised by his decision to write a cello concerto.
Dvořák wrote the concerto while in New York for his third term as the Director of the National Conservatory. In 1894 one of the teachers at the Conservatory, Victor Herbert, also a composer, finished his second cello concerto and premiered it in a series of concerts. Dvořák visited at least two performances of the piece and was inspired to fulfill Wihan's request in composing a cello concerto of his own.
The premiere took place on March 19, 1896, in Queen's Hall in London with the London Philharmonic under Dvořák's baton. The first interpreter was the English cellist Leo Stern. The cello played by Stern was the 1684 "General Kyd", one of only about 60 cellos made by Stradivarius. It was purchased by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association in the 1970s, and became the instrument of their principal cellist Peter Stumpf. In April 2004, while Stumpf was out of town for the weekend, the cello was stolen from his home.
The concerto was published in 1896 by N. Simrock, Berlin.
The large-scale sonata form first movement starts with a lengthy introduction by the orchestra, which states both themes and allows the soloist to expand on each. Following this opening essay is the lengthy Adagio, a lyrical movement which is both pastorale and troubled in character.
A great feeling of nostalgia pervades the third and final movement, formally a rondo. The material grows ever more passionate and yearning throughout, until the piece ends by bringing back musical material from the first and second movements in a slow, quiet fashion, finally culminating in a jubilant B major.
Wihan suggested several changes to the score of the concerto, in particular the cadenza at the end of the third movement. Other minor changes, many of which are presented as alternate passages in modern editions of the score, are simplifications of the challenging solo part. However the composer steadfastly rejected all but minor changes, including the cadenza, largely for personal reasons: the third movement was a tribute to the memory of his recently deceased sister-in-law, Josefina Čermakova. Specifically, the slow, wistful section, played by the solo violin concertmaster before the triumphant ending, quotes his series of songs "The Cypresses", Čermakova's favorite piece.
Dvořák's friend and mentor Johannes Brahms praised the concerto: "Why on earth didn't I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago! Brahms never wrote a cello concerto.