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Composed: 1919

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and solo cello

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 12, 1968, with cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Zubin Mehta conducting

About this Piece

The major part of Sir Edward's Elgar's 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.

The Cello Concerto of 1919 was the last full-scale orchestral work Elgar was destined to complete. 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. 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 accompanied 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.

— O.H.