October 11, 2014 7:30 PM
October 12, 2014 3:00 PM
Central Performing Arts Center
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85
Adagio — moderato
Lento — Allegro molto
Allegro — moderato — adagio
Timothy Archbold, cello
Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) was emotionally devastated by the onset of World War I, and as the 'war no one wanted' dragged on through four long years, his depression deepened. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that he could not do "any real work with the awful shadow over us." He was incensed and saddened that the flowers of British arts and letters were being cut down in the trenches on the battlefields of Europe. Young composers as George Coles, Ivor Gurney, and George Butterworth sacrified much to defend England - Coles and Butterworh with their lives. It was after the war, in the spring of 1919, that Elgar found again the impulse to compose music of a grand nature.
Most of Elgar's notable works were composed over a twenty-five year period, beginning around 1890. This was the period often referred to as the Late Romantic era, not only in music but in the other arts as well. From the turn of the century to the onset of war, Elgar's music came into its own as a distinctive 'British' music, and he was hailed as the legitimate heir to Henry Purcell, the paragon of English music before the arrival of the Germans Bach and Handel and the Italian Clementi and the Czech Dvořák. England did, indeed, produce home-grown composers, Stanford and Parry and Bantock of Elgar's youth, but they were more attuned to the influences from the continent, of Wagner and of Brahms. One can hear echoes of Wagner, for example, in Elgar's Froissart Overture of 1890.
The orchestral work that established Elgar as truly 'British' is his 1899 work Variations on an Original Theme, Op 36, 'Enigma Variations'. From that springboard, he went on to create other works with some international success including Symphony No 1 in A-flat major, Op 55, and a choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, Op 38.
The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85, is Elgar's last major work. The theme for the concerto came to Elgar in March 1918 as in a dream; he awoke from a sedative-induced nap and asked his daughter for pencil and paper and wrote the melody down. At the time he was suffering intense pain from a tonsillectomy, which was considered a dangerous operation on a man of sixty years age. He did little with this first theme for over a year. Then during the family's summer retreat in 1919 at a cottage along the Channel coast, he began to compose with a fervor that surprised his family; he seemed to have regained the vigor of the pre-War Elgar. By August, Elgar had completed the scoring and his daughter Alice posted the work to his publisher on August 8. Cellist and Elgar friend Felix Salmond served as soloist with the composer conducting when the concerto was premiered at the London Symphony Orchestra's opening concert on October 27, 1919. Albert Coates, "that brutal, selfish ill-mannered bounder...that brute Coats", according to Lady Elgar, conducted the rest of the program.
Lady Elgar was enraged that Coates had exceeded his rehearsal times, thus giving her husband inadequate time to prepare the orchestra and the soloist for his new work. As a result, the premiere of the concerto was a failure. 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...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 later said that it was only because of the hard work his soloist Salmond had pored into the work that he went on with the performance. Unlike his other major compositions, the concerto did not have another performance in London for well over a year.
The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85, remained on the periphery of the 'great cello concerto' repertoire for half a century before it finally reached its rightful place among the hallowed works for the instrument. The work had it performances and recordings over the years, including two recordings with the composer conducting; but it was not until the 1960s before it became a popular success with an impassioned recording by Jacqueline du Pré with conductor Sir John Barbirolli. The concerto has now become a standard of the instrument's repertoire and is widely performed.
As he lay on his death bed, Elgar hummed the concerto's first theme to a friend: "If ever after I'm dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don't be alarmed. It's only me."
Program Notes © William H Driver and Clinton Symphony Orchestra Association