“It’s good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional, but I love it.” Edward Elgar wrote those lines about his Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61. The composer was right. It is emotional. It is very good. And I love it too. A few days ago, I was walking to my car. It was the beginning of a grey and wet day. I had the opening bars of the first movement in the ear and I was thinking about a girl I once loved. It was an impossible love, of course. She lived in the former Soviet Union when we first met; I was still a student. I wrote her long and passionate letters, but she had more common sense than I had. She knew perfectly well she would not leave her country. She studied at a college in her country, her family was poor and she would not travel anywhere.
Perhaps there was an impossible love too behind Elgar’s music. He dedicated the violin concerto to the Austrian-American violinist Fritz Kreisler, but the score bears an enigmatic inscription: “Aqui esta encerrada el alma de…..” (Herein is enshrined the soul of…..) Whose soul? The soul of Elgar’s dear friend Alice Stuart-Wortley, whom the composer affectionately called “Windflower”? The soul of Elgar’s early love Helen Weaver? The one of his American friend Julia Worthington? The music scholars can’t say and Edgar left no clue to the mystery.
So when I had left home on that grey morning, I listened to the violin concerto, its delicate overall mood, its challenging solo parts, the poetic beauty of some of its themes. And I thought of that girl I once loved. I have lost track of her more than 20 years ago. I miss her at times. She was clever, funny, enigmatic, impetuous when she got angry, hopelessly romantic when she spoke about arts, love and life. Passionate when it came to politics. And tough. The poverty of her family had confronted her with violence, drunkenness and hunger. But she hang on. And I had never met anyone so avid of education as her. When the Soviet Union fell apart, she breathed the air of a freedom, of which she could not get enough.
Elgar composed the concerto between 1905 and 1910. It had been commissioned by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and saw its premiere on November 10, 1910 in London, the solo part being performed by Kreisler. The concerto “has for all its virtuosity the nature of a confessional. The impulse partly to reveal, partly to conceal, lies at the heart of this music. The impulse partly to reveal, partly to conceal, lies at the heart of this music”, Diana McVeagh writes in a piece for Oxford Music Online, and she compares it to Alban Berg’s Violon Concerto. “The soloist rhapsodizes ardently and freely, but the bravura is seldom just decorative: almost every twist and turn is organic and poetic.”
Bravura – courage. The girl I once loved was a brave person. She marched in the streets against the occupying Soviet power in the 1990s. She experienced the fear of knocks at the door at night, of being secretly hauled away like. She defied censure in the letters she wrote to me by openly denouncing the Soviet policies past and present. I wonder what she would say of the way politics took since we met. She was critical of capitalism and the United States, but she embraced the European Dream: a united Europe, prosperous, proud of its diverse cultural heritage and at peace with its neighbours and the world. Quite a dream.
Elgar’s violin concerto has been recorded by Hilary Hahn and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.
© Charles Thibo