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 had recorded the work for Pentatone.)





                                  (Photo of Brinkwells by Peter Whitcomb)

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