The cellist in Haydn’s concerto was a London Jew

The cellist in Haydn’s concerto was a London Jew


norman lebrecht

February 22, 2021

New research, presented by Houston Symphony principal Brinton Smith:

Haydn’s “London Concerto”?

Haydn’s 1783 D major cello concerto (Hob VIIb:2) suffered a checkered reception for much of its early history. Much of this owes its long rumored association with Haydn’s principal cellist at Esterhazy, Anton Kraft, who for years was believed to have premiered and heavily influenced, or perhaps even composed, the work.

Now new research, published in 2019 by Thomas Tolley building on discoveries of Simon McVeigh, has clarified the origins of the concerto, presenting compelling evidence that it was neither written for nor debuted by Anton Kraft, but composed for and premiered in London.

On March 24th, 1784 in the London press, advertisements announced the debut that evening of “‘A new Concerto, Violoncello, Mr Cervetto, composed by Haydn.” (The C major concerto was, at this point, more than twenty years old) The concert series at Hanover Square in London was presented by Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon, an amateur flautist and composer, who commissioned several new works by Haydn to present during his 1783 and 1784 concert series.

The soloist of the premiere, James Cervetto, was the son of the Italian Jewish immigrant and noted cellist Jacob Cervetto. Cervetto the younger was the principal cellist of the Italian Opera in London and one of England’s leading solo cellists, known for his tone and expression ‘equal to the best tenor voices’ as well as his brilliant virtuosity. As one of the early proponents of thumb position (including the use of the fourth finger in thumb position!) he could easily sightread violin parts at pitch when the need arose in chamber music. Haydn did not travel to London for the performances and is likely that the parts used for the premiere and a repeat performance one week later were destroyed to protect Haydn’s rights, as was the case with Abingdon’s other Haydn commissions. Reviews of the concerto’s 1784 debut emphasize how Haydn’s score was ideally matched to Cervetto’s strengths, particularly his expressive cantabile lyricism and florid virtuosity.

Why, then, has this concerto so long been associated with and even ascribed to Haydn’s first cellist at Esterhazy, Anton Kraft? Since the origins of the commission and premiere had until now been lost to history, the concerto required the skill of a top virtuoso, and Haydn and Kraft were both at Esterhazy near the date of composition, it was a reasonable assumption. However it also seems that Nikolaus Kraft, Anton’s son, supplied erroneous information to Gustav Schilling, who published in the 1837 Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaften the bold claim that the concerto was actually an early composition of Anton Kraft, submitted to Haydn for review and then inadvertently left among Haydn’s papers and published posthumously as the work of Haydn. We know now that this claim is clearly false and it surely would not have been made had Nikolaus Kraft or Schilling known in 1837 that Haydn’s manuscript still existed, that Haydn himself had inscribed the work into his catalog, or that it was not, in fact, published posthumously, but in 1804. (The André edition bore no date, but has been definitely dated by its plate numbers) It seems unlikely that Nikolaus Kraft, who was nine at the time Anton left Esterhazy and was trained as a cellist by his father, would not have known the true origins of the work. The false information he provided Schilling was likely a deliberate attempt to increase the legacy of his deceased father and their Kraft “brand.” Unfortunately, this great lie enmeshed itself to this concerto to such an extent that even to this day -in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary- many still imagine that there is some doubt as to its authenticity. Hopefully the newly revealed details of its commission and debut may finally put those rumors to rest.

My research into the origins of this concerto was inspired by concerts with the Houston Symphony. I am heavily indebted to Thomas Tolley whose groundbreaking research I am only surveying and whose paper should be read in its entirety for the rich level of background and detail it provides.





  • Martinon says:

    What is the point of emphasizing the cellist’s religion?

  • Edgar Self says:

    It’s fascinatomg tp read this research into the 1784 premiere by James Cervetto in London. I fell in love with this concerto through Emanuel Feuermann’s c. 1934 recording with “Dr.” Malcolm Sargent and an anonymous orchestra for Columbia, and have never fallen out of love with it, but this is a fine performance different in some editorial details and what I guess are Rostroopovich’s cadenzas.

  • Anonymous says:

    Classy and immaculate playing from Slava and the Academy of St Martins! Effortless.

  • NYMike says:

    I still have in my ear and revere Feuermann’s performance of this work. As a young musician, I remember playing in a performance whose soloist was the incredible Raya Garbousova

  • Robert Battey says:

    Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Haydn’s compositional technique can hear that this music had to have come out of someone else’s head. Why Haydn nonethless wrote it out is one of music’s great mysteries. But Anner Bylsma and Janos Starker agreed the work was spurious, the former advancing his own theory in the liner notes for his sparkling recording. All anyone needs to do is compare the piece, in form or detail, to any of Haydn’s authentic concertos to see the problem.

  • Fascinating and awesome article! Thanks brinton and Norman!

  • Genius Repairman says:

    The Kraft brand these days is better known for cheese…

  • IC225 says:

    It’s weird when trained historians – who know from first-hand experience that personal memory is unreliable, and that witnesses often “remember” errors that they believe with absolute certainty to be true – insist on attributing malicious motives to individuals in the past. Yes, the evidence seems compelling that this work was definitely by Haydn. Does that mean that Nikolaus Kraft knowingly perpetrated a “great lie”? Citation needed, to put it mildly.

    Speculation without supporting evidence about an individual’s motivation – about what is “surely unlikely” (when it’s not remotely sure) – is unworthy of a serious scholar and marrs an otherwise interesting and worthwhile piece of research. The strange, almost medieval, idea that everything unfortunate, accidental or regrettable that happened in the past MUST be the result of a malicious conspiracy by individuals acting in bad faith is unfortunately very much in fashion, distorting and stunting public discourse wherever it takes hold. It’s a pity to encounter it here. Not every error – indeed, not every injustice – arises from malice aforethought. Facts were less easily verified in the 19th century; this doesn’t entitle the present to assume moral superiority. It should be possible to appreciate Haydn, Cervetto and this wonderful concerto without also feeling the need – almost as a reflex – to libel Kraft Jr.

  • Marfisa says:

    All this (apart from Cervetto’s Jewish origin), including the Zoffany picture, is lifted from Brinton’s CelloBello post, which gives the reference to Tolley’s article:
    It is interesting Zoffany shows James Cervetto’s left hand accurately in thumb position, with the fourth finger on the string!

    • Marfisa says:

      Zoffany also painted the father Giaccobe Cervetto separately, playing the cello, with his left hand shown accurately (as in the portrait of James), fingers positioned across three strings, but the thumb behind the neck. It seems as though Zoffany is deliberately pointing to James Cervetto’s more advanced technique in his lovely group painting, with the father looking closely and admiringly at his son’s hand position, and Zoffany’s little daughter pretending to play the cello in the background (this detail has been cropped in the SD image).

      For the group of the two Cervettos with Zoffany and his daughter: For the portrait of Giaccobe Cervetto:

      Please could a cellist identify for me the chords that are being played?

      I would love to know more about these paintings, and about Zoffany’s relationship to the Cervetto family. But I may have to wait until libraries open again.

      Incidentally, and irrelevantly, Giaccobe Cervetto’s will stipulated that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. And he was a relative of Benjamin Disraeli’s mother.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        thank you. N

      • Marfisa says:

        Something is wrong with the link I gave to Giaccobe Cervetto’s portrait (sorry). But you can get to it through the main Wiki page:

      • Hartmut says:

        Hello Marfisa, I’m only an amateur, but it seems to be pretty obvios that Giacobbe has his fingers placed on F sharp (index finger) – G (middle finger) – A (ring finger). This is interesting, because from what I’ve seen in his compositions, these are indeed the top notes he uses.

        James’ fingers seem to sit in the probably most common of thumb positions, with the tip of the thumb on the D, first octave on the D string. Using the “normal” fingering, his little finger would be positioned on the E of the A string.

        The use of the thumb position itself is not that spectacular at that time. Corette writes about it in the thirteenth chapter of his “Methode” from 1741. I’m not sure when the use of the “fourth finger” was introduced, but by 1780, it was, I think, widely used.

        Martin Perkins recently discovered and published a convolute of manuscripts of cello music by James Cervetto and others ( The fifth finger is repeatedly reqired here. (And don’t miss the beautiful recording with Henrik Persson and Jonathan Rees!)

        The thing I find most puzzling, though, is James’ right hand! I’ve never seen any cellist putting his little finger in this position, on the opposite side of the stick. I’ve asked some baroque experts, but no one could tell me more about it.

        • Hartmut says:

          Oh, and fun fact: the three notes Giacobbe seems to play are exactly the beginning of Haydn’s D major cello concerto (if it was written by Haydn).

        • Marfisa says:

          Thank you very much, Hartmut. (Giacobbe – did you mean D middle finger?).

          I hadn’t considered the bow, and it is indeed very strange. Have you tried that hold yourself? Is it even possible? Is James using an early Tourte bow (ca 1780)? Giacobbe in the other portrait has a baroque bow, and a more normal hold.

          I am sure, however, that Zoffany was painting, with great care, exactly what he saw. I’ve looked again at the painting, zooming in on all eight hands in it — the little girl with her right hand and arm with an imaginary bow (not a firm grip) and her left hand fingers spread on an imaginary fingerboard, Zoffany’s big right hand holding her and one implement (not a paintbrush – what is it?), and his left-hand with thumb through the hole of his palette and fingers under it holding a clutch of paintbrushes, James’s hands on the cello, and Giacobbe’s hands. Looked at in that way, the rhythm of the whole composition is based on the hands, with James’s left hand almost at the centre-point.

          It is also of course a wonderful representation of the harmony of the sister arts, painting and music – but I am getting carried away. (All this may be in Tolley’s article – he is an Art historian – but it costs $25 to read it!)

          There is a dissertation available online on 18thC thumb position:

          Now to listen to some of Cervetto’s compositions (how did we live without YouTube?) Thank you again.

          • Hartmut says:

            Hello Marfisa, yes, I tried this bow hold, not least because I had the idea that James’ bow hold is in accordance with Corette who, as I see it, describes it as one option. (And I felt encouraged by an article by Brenda Neece, ‘The Cello in Britain: A Technical and Social History’). I think you can produce a stronger, somehow creamier sound when you’re at the tip of the bow, but otherwise it feels very odd. Playing at the frog end requires deactivating the small finger in an awkward way. But again, I’m only an amateur.

            The bow James is using seems to be what is today called a transitional bow, not yet “Tourte” but not baroque any more. If you watch videos of string quartets like Chiaroscuro, Consone or Doric, you can see cellists using variants of this bow, I think.

            Tolley’s article says a lot about James’ left hand and mentions the right hand only once. I find this in a way funny, because Tolley refers extensively to the praise James received for the sound he produced which was described as “chantant” like one of the best tenor voices, elegant, or with “all the sweetness and mioldness of the moonbeam”. All this makes you wonder about his bowing technique and articulation, doesn’t it?

            Norman, thank you for indulging this kind of nerdy discussion …

          • Marfisa says:

            Hartmut, I second your thanks to Norman, and I’m once again grateful to you. (I’m only a long-lapsed and never much good anyway amateur cellist, but I love the instrument, and Haydn.) Bring on the nerds!
            In the Giacobbe picture, it did look to me as though the fingers were on different strings, as if playing an arpeggio. But wouldn’t F#,G,A consecutively all be on the G string, and be a strange choice of position?
            It looks as though I will have to grit my teeth and shell out to read Tolley’s article.

  • John says:

    Here is a citation of the original article:

    Thomas Tolley, “James Cervetto and the Origin of Haydn’s D Major Cello Concerto,” Eighteenth-Century Music 16 (2019), 9–29

  • Viola says:

    How many ASMF players can people name in this video…? I’ll start: Iona Brown. Stephen Shingles . Antony Jenkins.Celia Nicklin . David Woodcock.