Elgar's song of anguish and survival

Brinkwells: the cottage the Elgars rented in West Sussex 

Thoughts on the centenary of Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, first performed at Queen's Hall in London on October 27, 1919.

Imagine if Hamlet began with the Prince alone on stage, delivering the words, "To be or not to be . . . " -- no setting of the scene, just one character thinking out loud, leaving us to make what we can of what he says. Edward Elgar does the musical equivalent of that in his Cello Concerto, placing the listener in the middle of things from its first moments, with four insistent chords and then a quick fade into a diminuendo.

That's not the way most concertos begin. There's usually an extended orchestral introduction, after which the solo instrument makes a carefully stage-managed first appearance. In Dvorak's earlier Cello Concerto, for example, that opening music lasts a full three-and-a-half minutes.

Elgar in London in 1919, the year in which he composed the concerto

Elgar's abrupt beginning suits this highly concentrated work--about half as long as his Violin Concerto. What follows is a rising arpeggio on the cello that seems to promise some other, emphatic statement. Instead, we hear a subdued lament in 9/8 time, first in the violas, then by the cello and the full orchestra.

Elgar wrote the concerto during the first spring and summer after the First World War, often staying with his wife at a cottage in the south of England. This gently swaying melody is his elegy for all that had been lost--millions of lives, and, with them, faith in a social order that had sent foot soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets to face machine guns and  poison gas. The music seems to express both the numbed serenity of grief and the ache within it.

But the second movement brings a darting fantasy for the cello, with all the freedom of a bird in flight. What does this exuberance, which few cellists play without a smile, have to do with the solemn movement we've just heard? It reminds us, perhaps, that any elegy is both a celebration of what has been lost and an affirmation of a survivor's resilience. In the quiet andante of the third movement, the music breathes a middle-of-the-night atmosphere. The numbness of the first movement's main theme is long gone, and the simple but lovingly shaped melody unfolds with great tenderness.

Elgar marked the main theme of the finale risoluto (resolutely); if he had captioned the movement itself, as Beethoven used to do, he might have said: "Grief goes out into the world." There's a lively dialogue between cellist and orchestra, often in a swaggering mood that evokes the composer's Falstaff.

Eventually the cello retreats into an extended soliloquy, drawing together themes from throughout the work, now imbued with an even greater depth of feeling. Then, suddenly--as sudden as the four chords that began the work--cello and orchestra play eight bars in unison, and the concerto ends. We're left to wonder: does that brusque conclusion express resignation, or defiance?
The concerto had its first performance in Queen's Hall, London, with cellist Felix Salmond and the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Critic Ernest Newman described it as "the realisation in tone of a fine spirit's lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of the earth." Elgar's own summary was more blunt: "A man's attitude to life."

Generations of cellists have been attracted to the concerto, by the beauty of its themes, by the close kinship among them and by the dramatic way in which they are presented and developed. Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pré, Steven Isserlis, Alisa Weilerstein and many others have recorded the work. Here is a gripping recent performance by Johannes Moser and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. (Moser has recorded the work for Pentatone.)

                                  (Photo of Brinkwells by Peter Whitcomb)

Walt Whitman: 200 Years On

For the 200th anniversary of the birth of our national poet (May 31, 2019), here are lines from Walt Whitman's 'Song of the Universal', which Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo has selected and set for chorus and orchestra. (You can hear a performance of the work from Spain at the first link below.) Whitman was one of the first writers who made me take poetry seriously, and I'm sure there are more echoes of his verses in my own work than I will ever find.

Come, said the Muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the Universal.

In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed Perfection.

By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—concealed or unconcealed, the seed is waiting.

Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us
Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.

All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain;
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.

Written in 1871, this poem--considerably longer than the lines Gjielo selected--appears at the head of the 'Birds of Passage' section of Leaves of Grass. Is this Whitman's most succinct expression of his artistic credo? I think it might be.

Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Audacity to Be Free

The story sounds like one of this morning's headlines. A brilliant young woman has a teacher she admires, who offers to be her mentor. She studies with him privately and even moves in with his family, but then discovers he wants to divorce his wife and marry her. This shattering MeToo moment is from Ruth, an 1895 novel by Lou Andreas-Salomé.

The Russian-born novelist challenged many accepted ideas of thinking, and her books struck a nerve among her mostly female readers. They wrote her emotional letters; some came to visit her at her home in Berlin. Yet today Lou (as she preferred to be called) is known primarily for her friends. A tumultuous summer with Nietzsche led to her writing the first full-length study of his works; by Rilke's own admission, her support made the Duino Elegies possible; and, under Freud's own tutelage, she became the first female psychoanalyst.

Cordula Kablitz-Post's film sets the record straight, establishing Lou as a highly original thinker in her right, with the force of character to live independently in a society that expected women to be subservient. Liv Lisa Fries (above), acclaimed for her performance in the Netflix series Babylon Berlin, plays Lou as a rebellious St. Petersburg teenager who dares to read Spinoza but finds her intelligence only makes her more attractive to a predatory male mind.

Katharina Lorenz has the challenge of playing Lou in her prime: Nietzsche called her "by far the smartest person I have ever became acquainted with." From the moment the two meet, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Lou sees that Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer), already a well known author, intends to dazzle her. She quickly turns the tables, engaging him and their friend Paul Rée (Philipp Hauß) in a deliciously funny mock confession.

Scheer gives us Nietzsche's geniality, as well as his volatility. When he and Lou climb the hills above Lake Orta, debating their future together, there is no question that she is his match, in both wits and will. In fact, their headstrong minds may be too alike; just months later, Lou decides to live with Rée, but eventually marries the Persian scholar Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze).

Thirteen years later, Lou meets a 21-year-old art history student named René Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier). She rechristens him "Rainer," and they become the closest of confidantes. My one quibble with the script is it does not make clear how closely they stayed in touch after their three-year romance ended; they visited one another and corresponded until Rilke's death in 1926.

Julius Feldmeier as Rainer Maria Rilke

Nicole Heesters plays Lou near the end of her life, confined by ill health to her Göttingen home, yet still changing in ways that let her form a final bond with the young scholar Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier), who will edit her memoirs.

The script, by Susanne Hertel and Kablitz-Post, deftly interweaves the story of Lou's earlier life with the new relationship between the elderly writer and the young man who will help keep her legacy alive. Matthias Schellenberg's nimble camera is equally at home in the elaborate, 19th-century interiors; out on a mountain lake; or following Lou and Paul Rée through the gaslit streets of "Rome" (shot in the oldest part of central Vienna; see the clip).

If viewers like this film as much as I did, I hope they will try Lou's fiction. A good place to start is "Before the Awakening," from The Human Family, a short story collection translated by Raleigh Whitinger. Lou's empathetic account of both sides of a failed seduction is the work of an extraordinary and life-enhancing imagination. Warmly recommended.

Matthias Lier (Erst Pfeiffer) and Nicole Heesters (Lou Andreas-Salomé)