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Concerto in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 85

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edward Elgar
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Alisa Weilerstein, cello, plays Elgar May 2 - 4, 2013
© Thomas May

Before knighthood and international recognition came his way, Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was still struggling to make his name in the provinces. The breakthrough proved to be a large set of variations for orchestra, which premiered in June 1899 and came to be known as The "Enigma" Variations. But the entire culture that had furnished Elgar with his sense of artistic identity would be swept away less than two decades later. By the end of the First World War, when Elgar composed the Cello Concerto, the grand old man and spearhead of a Renaissance in English music was being considered an unfashionable relic of the past.

 

The Cello Concerto was Elgar's last completed full-scale composition for orchestra. Although he didn't necessarily plan it as a valedictory statement, the score is full of backward glances and imbued with an elegiac sense of Romanticism facing its final demise. It doesn't seem far-fetched to sense here the composer's awareness that the era to which he had given such a distinctive voice was at an end. This is music that, even in its most melancholy states of reverie, seems to reach out yearningly for some meaning to hold on to. We've been paying much attention this year to 1913 as the year of revolution, of the Rite of Spring and radically new attitudes toward musical possibility. But in the wake of the First World War, which had forever shattered the old certainties, many were wondering what this brave new world promised.

 

The Cello Concerto's autumnal, sunset-romantic sensibility has appealed to generations since. It's also been exploited in films, as in Hilary and Jackie, the 1998 musical biopic about cellist Jacqueline du Pré, where Elgar's music accompanies repeated flashbacks. Du Pré's interpretation of the work - it became a signature of her artistry - proved so moving that, according to music writer Norman Lebrecht, Mstislav Rostropovich, who had been her teacher, "erased the concerto from his repertory" upon encountering her legendary 1965 recording. Slava himself said in an interview with Tim Janof that he came to believe the piece is "somewhat naïve," with music that "sounds like it's about first love" and is therefore "more appropriate for a young person."

 

Du Pré established the Cello Concerto as an international repertory staple, but the premiere in 1919, with Felix Salmond as soloist and the composer leading the London Symphony Orchestra, was a fiasco owing to inadequate rehearsal time. Elgar also conducted the first recording (in an abridged version) the following year. In some ways, the Concerto continues the more economical and compressed line of thinking Elgar had been exploring in his recent chamber works. The composer had developed a sudden interest in chamber music toward the end of the Great War - perhaps resulting from the need for a more-intimate form of expression.

 

The cello takes the spotlight at the very start of the four-movement work with a dramatic recitative. This immediately establishes the vivid presence the soloist will maintain throughout the entire work, whether the mood tends toward quiet contemplation or passionate expression. Elgar dramatizes the interplay between soloist and orchestra with continually inventive touches. Notice, for example, how the violas first trace the elegiac main theme - easily recognizable from its lilting, wavelike motion - before the cello elaborates its deeper implications. This is the theme that does posthumous service as a leitmotif in the film Hilary and Jackie as the identifying "tag" for the whole Concerto. Another brand of melancholy meanwhile emerges in the second theme. The contrast between the two in a sense implies the difference between public and private grief.

 

An extraordinary transition leads into the second movement as Elgar introduces another recitative, this time based on low plucked notes. The soloist seems reluctant to set its elegiac frame of mind aside, but a light-hearted scherzo ensues, pulsating with rapid-fire repetitions. Elgar has now prepared a richer context for the Adagio's tragic sensibility, its distillation of grief. The attitude of leave-taking, however, conveys a serenity utterly free of self-pity. The composer's touching melody embodies the familiar psychological experience of double-edged memories whose consolation is inseparable from the pain they unavoidably trigger.

 

In Elgar's unusual formal design, the finale becomes the longest of the four movements. Once again a recitative-like cadenza for the cellist serves as a transition from the Adagio and as a prelude before the finale proper launches. Springing to life with a rhythmically lively main theme, this highly varied movement contains much drama as it steers a path between confident assertion and introspection. Toward the end, a slower, graver theme elicits the cellist's utmost eloquence. Flashbacks to previously heard material cast a shadow against the music's dying glow. The tempo then quickens for an impassioned adieu.