The Countryside Gives Birth to a Mellow Cello

Romantic music often deals with pastoral subjects. © Charles Thibo

Heart-warming music… That’s how I would describe the first movement of this wonderful cello concerto. The British composer Sir Edward Elgar composed his Cello Concerto in E Minor, op. 85 in 1918/19 and it shows how deep the Romantic era had penetrated the composer’s soul. It reminds me of the bittersweet Trio élégiaque written by Sergei Rachmaninov, that I have discussed in a previous post. I have two delightful recordings of op. 85: One by the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Alisa Weilerstein playing the cello solo parts, and one by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox, with Steven Isserlis on the cello.

Beyond romanticism

While the first movement is written in a very traditional style, with a melodious theme that could well have flown out of a Russian composer’s pen, the second movement transcends already the Romantic era. The cello opens the movement with pizzicato* and a short theme for the cello marks the opening. The melody gradually develops and though the movement does not betray the piece’s overall romantic character, it sounds very avant-garde. The third movement by contrast is more of a lyrical nature. Finally, the fourth movement. The cello opens with a fast crescendo*, introducing a theme that is picked up by the strings later on. The movement decelerated gradually, picks up a theme of the third movement and ends on the recitative of the first movement fusing with the fourth movement main theme. Beautiful!

Learning by doing

Elgar was born 1857 in Worcester, where his father, a violinist and pianist, kept a music shop and played the organ during masses. The few violin lessons Elgar took as a young boy were the only formal music education he ever got. But he absorbed a lot of knowledge in his father’s shop, at the organ loft and in the city’s music societies. He learned to improvise on the piano.  At the age of ten, he  composed music for a family play. There were plans to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, but the family lacked the money to send young Edward abroad. At the age of 15, he had to earn his life and started to work as a clerk. One year later, he quitted and became a freelance musician, never holding a secure employment from that moment on. He who believes in his dreams and dares…

His obvious talent and his courage paved the way for a remarkable career as a self-made-musician. He succeeded his father as organist of St George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester and appeared regularly as a violinist from 1873 on. Four years later, he would lead the Worcester Amateur Instrumental Society, later the Worcester Philharmonic. He played in a wind quintet and – brace yourself – composed for the musicians among the staff to the County Lunatic Asylum at Powick, whom he coached and led as a conductor.

Initial rejection and late fame

In 1886, he met his future wife Caroline Alice Roberts, a piano student. They married in 1889 and moved to London. His wife’s fortune enabled him to establish himself as a composer. He wrote his first larger works: the Suite in D and the overture “Froissard”. However, London did not welcome him, and soon he moved back to the countryside. His modest origin and his faith – as a Catholic he stood out in Worcester – made him aware how much an outsider he was. Nevertheless, Elgar did not give up. Gradually his reputation as a composer, musician  and conductor grew.

The break-through came in 1898/99 when Elgar published “The Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma)” op. 36, an orchestral work widely acclaimed that won him an honorary doctorate of the University of Cambridge. By 1918, when he started to compose op. 85, he was one of Great Britain’s best known composers. And the concerto was his last substantial work.

The magazine “Gramophone” featured an interesting interview with Alisa Weilerstein on the recording of the Cello Concerto.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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