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Elgar (1857-1934) - 'Cello Concerto

The fin de siècle artistic revolution sent shock waves through Europe. This exciting time, for artists in all fields, reverberated in Elgar's music. For example, in the early 1900s, he dropped chamber music in favour of a string of fabulous orchestral works culminating in the two Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and Falstaff. This artistic revolution symptomised a deeper, seismic pressure, erupting in the Great War which destroyed the old order. The new uncertainty devastated Elgar (and innumerable others, I shouldn't wonder!), who inevitably sublimated his dismay, principally through a final foray into the intimacy of chamber music: the Violin Sonata, String Quartet and Piano Quintet all came from this period. 

The 'Cello Concerto, started in London late in 1918 amid the aftermath of war, shows a stylistic shift from the opulence of pre-war symphonic works like Cockaigne and Falstaff to a correspondingly intimate treatment of the orchestra, sparer and more translucent. This comes not from economics or sophistication, but from expressive necessity (the similarity to Mahler is striking). Confident Edwardian gestures are supplanted by fierce anger, ceremonial mourning like the funeral music of the Second Symphony by naked grief. Elgar, dumped into purgatory,  pared the comfortable fat off his orchestra to bare his own lacerated soul. 

1. Adagio - moderato: After Beethoven, a solo lead no longer shocks - but the 'cello, of all instruments, emitting such an anguished cry, now that's shocking. The orchestra consoles the soloist with the first subject, indefinitely extendable, lilting like a lullaby. Gradually passions rise, then subside to a brief hiatus, into which 'cello and woodwind inject the second subject, a wistful throwback to Elgar's youth. The soloist slips back into the first subject, not a repeat in a large-scale sonata, but the end of a simple ternary form, linked without a break to . . . 

2. Lento - allegro molto: From deep gloom, the angry motto glowers. A stuttering 'cello offers diversion, accepted only after considerable prevarication, a game of "tag" where the main subject scurries around at length, and the vaulting second subject provides the brief "catches". The third time round, a sudden high pang interrupts. The game continues, now involving the second subject, through to a sprightly, beautifully weighted "full stop". 

3. Adagio: “Three slowly rising phrases and a three note (marcato) descent introduce the only subject of the movement, a broad melody which is first given by the soloist supported by the orchestra. Immediately initiating a full reprise, the orchestra becomes more actively involved the second time around. The 'cello provides a short codetta, leading to a repeat of the introductory phrases”. With exactly the same word count as the movement has bars, that's as dust-dry a description as I can muster for one of the most heartbreakingly poignant utterances in musical history. Elgar so expresses utter bewilderment at loss beyond measure that I hear in those final marcato notes the words, "What comes now?" 

4. Allegro - moderato - allegro ma non troppo: The answer is a "girding of loins", according to the orchestra's vigorous suggestion. A still bemused soloist turns it into desolated soliloquy, but the orchestra insists, so together they boisterously intertwine elements of rondo and sonata. The soloist is prevented from becoming maudlin over the second subject, and in a development they even aspire to the old spirit of "Cockaigne" et al. But, gradually, anguish intrudes, eventually compelling the 'cello, in a moment of supreme nostalgia, to recall the slow movement. With the angry cry from the start of the work, the music storms to a forceful conclusion. Clearly, Elgar is not about to let a little despondency get him down.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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