About this Piece
Elgar’s name and the Enigma Variations are inextricably bound, but those who think of him as a one-piece composer need only look at his large catalog of compositions in virtually all instrumental and vocal forms to realize the scope of the man’s creativity.
The major part of that creativity was compressed within a relatively few years. Although he was musically precocious, having begun writing pieces when a child, he did not come into his own until he was about 40, and did not produce his first symphony until he was 51. By that time, however, his reputation had been firmly established, beginning with the impression he had made with the Imperial March, written for the day of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on June 22, 1897. This was followed by the hallmark Enigma Variations and then by a set of bracing and uplifting Pomp and Circumstance Marches.
In fact he became Britain’s glory, the first native-born composer to gain international prominence after the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 closed England’s flourishing musical period with strange and chilling finality. Utilizing an essentially Germanic language and without resorting to English folk music, Elgar spoke eloquently for his countrymen and for his time. Gazing at the Age of Edward that was fast passing, and only reluctantly recognizing the imminent demise of that which he cherished, he built highly personal monuments to grace and taste, to elegance and the noble gesture, and to national pride.
The Cello Concerto of 1919 was the last full-scale orchestral work Elgar was destined to complete. With some deviations from its norm, the Concerto moves from dour to dourer – which I think aptly describes the brief introduction and the main theme that follows. The fact that the Concerto was completed after World War I’s armistice, which proved to be the last nail in the Edwardian era’s coffin, almost certainly accounts for a reticence and sobriety that before had not been nearly so pervasive in Elgar’s works. The composer had been deeply troubled by the war. Further, he was financially insecure and in ill-health. “I am more alone and the prey of circumstances than ever before,” he said. “Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away, never to return.” This pathetic lament is reflected in the Cello Concerto as possibly in no other of his pieces.
It is not only the musical materials of the Concerto which bespeak his despairing frame of mind, but also the concise structures housing them and the spare orchestration in which they are clothed. This is not to say that the characteristic Elgar is not present in the Concerto, but rather that, where before he had been a reflector or a synthesizer as much as a creator – “Music is in the air all around you,” he once said, “you just take as much of it as you want” – here he has arrived at the point where he can unify his own best inspirations, methods, and manners. Schumann, Wagner, Dvor?ák, Strauss, Mahler, etc., still lie beneath the surface, but Elgar’s working of a special English incantation on them has rendered their images less distinct, and given his own individuality deeper and fuller definition. Such compositional fingerprints as the sequential repetition of materials and the persistent use of square rhythmic patterns are still to be found (the Concerto’s very first theme reveals both), but here they seem more intrinsic to the musical thought and less of a mannerism.
The four-movement work begins with a short cello passage marked with one of Elgar’s favored performing directives, Nobilmente. This assertive but morose musical gesture, which returns briefly in the second movement and also at the end of the Concerto, contrasts sharply with the austere, long-limbed main theme of the movement proper given by violas alone. Resignation and bitterness seem to mingle here, with only flickering moments of hope entering the autumnal atmosphere.
The first movement is linked to the second by rhapsodic material in the cello that begins with a pizzicato allusion to the first movement’s opening, and then goes on to a perpetual motion, virtuosic course as a Scherzo.
A brief, meditative, and searching slow movement prefaces a finale notable for rich contrasts that include an energetic main theme, an accompa-nied cadenza, and a return of part of the slow movement’s materials as well as that first idea with which the Concerto began. But behold, after all of the deep melancholy that has suffused the work, the ending has about it the kind of bravado that tells much about British fortitude, about the “chin up, carry on” strength of that people. It is a good and a bold stroke.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.