Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, his last notable work, is a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. Elgar composed it in the aftermath of the First World War, when his music had already gone out of fashion with the concert-going public. In contrast with Elgar's earlier Violin Concerto, which is lyrical and passionate, the Cello Concerto is for the most part contemplative and elegiac.
The premiere was a debacle because Elgar and the performers had been deprived of adequate rehearsal time. The work did not achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public imagination and became a classical best-seller. Elgar made two recordings of the work with Beatrice Harrison as soloist. Since then, leading cellists from Pablo Casals onward have performed the work in concert and in the studio.
Elgar is not known to have done any work on the concerto until 1919. However, as far back as 1900 the cellist of the Brodsky Quartet, Carl Fuchs, had extracted from Elgar an agreement to write a cello concerto. Fuchs later wrote to Elgar reminding him of this agreement. In 1903, Fuchs' friend, the cellist Paul Grümmer reiterated the request orally, and in 1906 by letter, so the idea of such a piece was not new.
The concerto was composed during the summer of 1919 at Elgar's secluded cottage "Brinkwells" near Fittleworth, Sussex, where during previous years he had heard the sound of the artillery of World War I rumbling across the Channel at night from France. In 1918, Elgar underwent an operation in London to have an infected tonsil removed, a dangerous operation for a 61-year-old man. After regaining consciousness from sedation, he asked for pencil and paper, and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme in the concerto. He and his wife soon retired to the cottage in an attempt to recover from their health problems. In 1918, Elgar composed three chamber works, which his wife noted were already noticeably different from his previous compositions, and after their premieres in the spring of 1919, he began realising his idea of a cello concerto.
The concerto had a disastrous premiere, at the opening concert of the London Symphony Orchestra's 1919–20 season on 27 October 1919. Apart from the concerto, which the composer conducted, the rest of the programme was conducted by Albert Coates, who overran his rehearsal time at the expense of Elgar's. Lady Elgar wrote, "that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder ... that brute Coates went on rehearsing." The critic of The Observer, Ernest Newman, wrote, "There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever the explanation, the sad fact remains that never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself. ... The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar's music in the last couple of years – but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity." Elgar attached no blame to his soloist, Felix Salmond, who played for him again later. Elgar said that if it had not been for Salmond's diligent work in preparing the piece, he would have withdrawn it from the concert entirely.
In contrast with the First Symphony, which received a hundred performances worldwide in just over a year from its premiere, the Cello Concerto did not have a second performance in London for more than a year.
The work has four movements:
- Adagio – Moderato (approx. 8:00)
- Lento – Allegro molto (approx. 4:30)
- Adagio (approx. 4:50)
- Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non-troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio (approx. 11:30)
An ad lib modified scale played by the solo cello follows. The viola section then presents a rendition of the main theme in Moderato, and passes it to the solo cello who repeats it. Elgar considered it to be his tune: "if you ever hear someone whistling this melody around the Malvern Hills, that will be me".
The string section plays the theme a third time and then the solo cello modifies it into a fortissimo restatement. The orchestra reiterates, and the cello presents the theme a final time before moving directly into a lyrical E major middle section.
This transitions into a similar repetition of the first section. This section omits the fortissimo modified theme in the solo cello. The slower first movement moves directly into the second movement.
The second movement opens with a fast crescendo with pizzicato chords in the cello. Then, the solo cello plays what will be the main motive of the Allegro molto section.
Pizzicato chords follow. A brief cadenza is played, and sixteenth-note motive and chords follow. A ritardando leads directly to a scherzo-like section which remains until the end. The slow third movement starts and ends with a lyrical melody, and one theme runs through the entire movement.
The end flows directly into the finale (again with no pause). The fourth movement begins with another fast crescendo and ends at fortissimo. The solo cello follows with another recitative and cadenza. The movement's main theme is noble and stately, but with undertones and with many key-changes.
Near the end of the piece, the tempo slows into a più lento section, in which a new set of themes appears.
The tempo slows further, to the tempo of the third movement, and the theme from that movement is restated. This tempo continues to slow until it becomes stagnant, and the orchestra holds a chord. Then, at the very end of the piece, the recitative of the first movement is played again. This flows into a reiteration of the main theme of the fourth movement, with tension building until the final three chords, which close the piece.
Elgar and Beatrice Harrison made a truncated recording in 1920, using the acoustic recording process. The first electrical complete recording (using a single carbon microphone) was made in 1928, by Harrison, Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra. A notable later recording was made by Jacqueline du Pré in 1965 with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra for EMI. During a break in the recording session, the 20-year-old du Pré left the studio, returning to find a large audience of local musicians and critics who had heard that a star was in the making. On hearing her recording, Mstislav Rostropovich is said to have removed the work from his own repertoire. In an interview, on being asked why the Elgar concerto was not in his standard repertoire, Rostropovich said "My pupil, Jacqueline du Pré, played it much better than I." Du Pré's recording has been praised for its passion as well as a secure technique. Barbirolli himself had an association with the concerto from its first days: he was a member of the cello section of the orchestra at its 1919 premiere; and he was the soloist at one of its earliest performances, with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Sir Dan Godfrey.
In 1985 the British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber recorded the concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Yehudi Menuhin. The recording was chosen by the Elgar scholar Jerrold Northrop Moore as the "finest ever version" for BBC Music Magazine and won a Brit Award for "Best Classical Recording" of 1985.
The BBC Radio 3 feature "Building a Library" has presented comparative reviews of all available versions of the concerto on three occasions. The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music, 2008, has three pages of reviews of the work. The only recording to receive the top recommendation of both the BBC and The Penguin Guide is du Pré's 1965 recording with the LSO and Barbirolli. Other recordings commended by both the BBC and The Penguin Guide are by Beatrice Harrison (1928); Steven Isserlis (1988); Yo-Yo Ma (1985) and Truls Mørk (1999).
- Jerrold Northrop Moore, Elgar A Creative Life, p. 299. Retrieved 26 March 2017
- Moore, p. 405. Retrieved 26 March 2017
- Moore, p. 741. Retriever 26 March 2017
- The Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82; the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83; and the Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84.
- Steinberg, M. The Concerto: A Listener's Guide, Oxford (1998) pp. 185–89.
- Lloyd-Webber, Julian, "How I fell in love with E E's darling", The Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2007; and Anderson, Keith, Liner notes to Naxos CD 8.550503, Dvořák and Elgar Cello Concertos (1992), p. 4
- Newman, Ernest, "Music of the Week", The Observer, 2 November 1919
- Reed, p. 131
- Stevenson, Joseph. "Felix Salmond: Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 June 2007.
- The Observer, 16 January 1921, p. 15
- Benjamin Zander, Cello Master Classes on the Cello Concerto, 2015.
- Lebrecht, pp. 208–09
- "Conversation with Mstislav Rostropovich". www.cello.org.
- See, e.g., March, p. 424
- Some sources state that Barbirolli gave the second performance of the concerto, but the original soloist, Felix Salmond, gave the work its second performance, with the Hallé in Manchester on 20 March 1920, and Beatrice Harrison also played the solo part before Barbirolli did: see Kennedy p. 40. Reviewing Barbirolli's 1921 performance, The Musical Times commented, "Signor Giovanni Barbirolli was not entirely equal to the demands of the solo music, but his playing unquestionably gave a considerable amount of pleasure." See The Musical Times, 1 March 1921, p. 195
- Julian Lloyd Webber Archived 4 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine, RPO, Philips 416354-2
- Beatrice Harrison, Building a Library, BBC Radio 3, accessed 24 October 2010
- Steven Isserlis, Building a Library, BBC Radio 3, accessed 24 October 2010
- Yo-Yo Ma, Building a Library, BBC Radio 3, accessed 24 October 2010
- March, pp. 424–26
- Kennedy, Michael. Barbirolli, Conductor Laureate: The Authorised Biography, MacGibbon and Key, London, 1971. ISBN 0-261-63336-8
- Lebrecht, Norman (2007). The Life and Death of Classical Music, New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 978-1-4000-9658-9
- March, Ivan (ed) (2007). The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-103336-5
- Reed, W.H. (1946). Elgar. London: Dent. OCLC 8858707.
- The Elgar Birthplace Museum
- Elgar Concertos on CD
- Guide to the Concerto from Elgar.org – includes a Musical Tour and a History
- VIDEO: Elgar Cello Concerto third movement performed by Julian Lloyd Webber and conducted by Yehudi Menuhin
- Elgar Cello Concerto performed by Natalie Clein with Vernon Handley
- Elgar Cello Concerto performed by Jian Wang (cellist)
- Cello Concerto: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919)
- Discovering Music Elgar's Cello Concerto