Cello Concerto in E Minor, op. 85

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            It would surely be no presumption that perhaps the most common image of Sir Edward Elgar is the walrus-mustachioed, imperious figure who—like the similar picture of Lord Kitchener on the WW I recruiting posters—represents all that is Edwardian England.  In the popular imagination he might be the embodiment of Imperial Britain, the empire on which the sun never set, and more specifically, the most “English” of English composers.  This picture is indelibly enhanced by every American’s encounter, at any graduation worth the name, with Elgar’s most famous composition, Pomp and Circumstance (actually, the trio of the first of five marches by that name).  Well, it’s simply not true—or at least, a gross exaggeration.  While Elgar was Britain’s most influential composer during roughly the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the truth of the matter is much more nuanced and complex.

            He was born in humble circumstances; his father was a rural piano tuner and shopkeeper, but the family was musical and appreciative of literature.  He learned the piano early on, and did study violin, but not much.  He was largely self taught, but advanced sufficiently to earn a modest living playing violin in local orchestras, accompanying singers, and conducting small orchestras such as that of the local “lunatic asylum.”   He never took a lesson in musical composition.  He was assiduous in his self-studies, taking every opportunity to improve himself—reading everything, traveling to hear distinguished conductors and great music.  His zeal for personal improvement was immense.   He more or less worked his way up the composers’ ladder by writing choral music for local and regional groups, taking time when possible to go to Europe to broaden his exposure to the canon of German and French composers.   And therefore, it must be said, the sources of his musical style were not primarily English at all, rather the mainstream of German compositional procedures, with a healthy dose of French mastery of orchestration.   And for the English folksong tradition as inspiration and source for a contemporary idiom (as in the case of his countrymen, Vaughan Williams and Holst), he was contemptuous.

            While he had thitherto busied himself with years of composing, it seemed to many that he had almost come out of nowhere in 1899 with what is arguable his masterpiece, the so-called Enigma Variations for orchestra.  After that, things went splendidly for him; he garnered solid financial security, received a knighthood, and secured a position as the most respected English composer since the seventeenth-century Henry Purcell.  The world of Edwardian and Georgian England before WWI was his oyster.   Compositions flowed during the next two decades, but of those, his greatest works were his magnificent vocal/orchestral work, The Dream of Gerontius, two symphonies, a violin concerto, and finally, the cello concerto.

            Elgar, the man, was not the self-confident, master of his popular image, rather he was a complex, private person, always striving for acceptance, and definitely not an unthinking jingoistic patriot.  His violin concerto (1910) had enjoyed great acclaim, but success began to come with more difficulty.  When war broke out in August 1914, Elgar was not among the enthusiastic.  He had serious forebodings, and after the cataclysm that effectively eliminated an entire generation of English youth, he plunged into despair.  The cello concerto is completely the reflection of a heartfelt response to the national tragedy.  It was not well received, and it took decades for its greater appreciation.

            Cast in four, rather than the traditional three movements of typical concertos, the work begins equally unconventionally with an intense, dark unaccompanied recitative-like section for cello alone.  After a bit, the main theme appears in the viola section.  The entire first movement in many ways seems not at all like a typical first movement of a concerto, for it’s really not all that energetic in tempo, in keeping the general dark mood of the piece.  The brisker, second movement follows without pause, and rather than a jolly romp, or exciting dance, it is a ghostly affair.   Like a will o’the wisp, the steely repeated notes of the soloist almost skate along, in an eerie sotto voce.  The slow movement is an appropriate elegiac affair, almost a requiem for the lost generation.   While the concerto is not a conventional virtuoso display piece, this work demands virtuosity of a different nature:  Certainly, the technical demands are great—not for show—but the gravitas and general spiritual content require an emotional maturity that is a kind of virtuosity.  This movement exemplifies that.  The last movement flows right out the third movement, again with a cadenza for the soloist.  The main theme is what you would expect from the composer of Pomp and Circumstance, but it’s not a movement of unalloyed optimism.  Like its creator, it is a movement of reflection and complicated feelings, somewhat ambiguous in its mood.  It gradually slows towards the end, and we hear a quote of the luxurious slow movement, and then “closing the tail,” a restatement of the opening solo from the very first movement, before we decidedly end the work with the main theme of the last movement. 

            It’s an unconventional concerto, but it is a masterpiece.  It is not only a reflection of the forever altered world of Britain in 1919, but also the deep and apt expression of great composer facing his own old age, and for that matter, an audience that soon saw him as an anachronism.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan