Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: About 30 Minutes
Genre: Solo Concerto
Time of Creation: 1918–1919
World Premiere: October 27, 1919 (London)
Table of Contents
Elgar's Cello Concerto in 5 Sentences
In his Cello Concerto, the English composer Edward Elgar processed many impressions that had hit him hard: World War I was raging in Europe, Elgar’s wife Alice was seriously ill, and Elgar himself had to undergo a tonsil operation. Immediately after this operation, Elgar thought of the main theme for his cello concerto, without initially knowing what to make of it – the decision to use it as the basis for a cello concerto was made only later. To work on his Cello Concerto, Elgar retreated to Worcestershire, where he had spent his childhood. The Cello Concerto is Elgar’s last major composition and it is something like a “planned farewell” (see also the quote below); one is reminded a bit of the context in which Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 was written.
4 Highlights from Elgar's Cello Concerto
Highlight 1: a special relationship between solo instrument and orchestra
With solo concertos, there is always the question of the relationship between solo instrument and orchestra. The “rule” is almost always one of two extremes: Either solo instrument and orchestra engage in a contest, or the orchestra largely steps back and accompanies the solo instrument.
In Elgar’s Cello Concerto, however, neither of these possibilities really wants to seem appropriate to me. I think support is the more appropriate term here: solo instrument and orchestra support each other. If one is stuck, the other takes over. For example, this is the case at the beginning: the cello begins with a solo statement (and is – um – supported by the orchestra only with individual chords 😉), but then “gets lost” in the high notes…whereupon the orchestra takes over…
Highlight 2: Fading away...lively? Lively!
Elgar composed a remarkable transition from the first to the second movement: The first movement fades out with the low strings, then the cello begins several times with a lively gesture, but always breaks off. It’s as if the solo instrument is asking a question, “Is the fast movement coming now? Are you joining in?” 😊
It takes quite a while for the orchestra to actually join in (11:16 in the video) – but then the fast movement picks up speed:
Highlight 3: third movement – song without words
The third movement is also special: it is something like an “aria”, only purely instrumental – that is, a song without words. (By the way, this genre is older than most people think – already by Bach there is the famous “Air”). The heavy instruments (brass) are silent in this movement:
Highlight 4: Memories of the past
I think it has become quite clear from the highlights so far that Elgar realized some amazing things in his Cello Concerto, especially at the level of form. This is exactly the case in the last movement: just before the end, Elgar brings quotes from the first movement before ending his Cello Concerto with the full orchestral sound. One almost feels a little reminded of Beethoven’s Ninth, in which the themes from the preceding movements are quoted once again in the last movement.
3 Questions and Answers about Elgar's Cello Concerto
Question 1: What happened at the premiere of Elgar's Cello Concerto?
Elgar conducted the premiere of his Cello Concerto himself (soloist was the English cellist Felix Salmond, orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra), but the rest of the program of the concerto was conducted by another conductor (Albert Coates). The latter had reserved most of the rehearsal time for the rest of the program, especially for a technically challenging piece by Scriabin, so Elgar’s Cello Concerto was under-rehearsed. The reviews of the premiere were therefore divided: While the musical performance was criticized, Elgar’s composition was praised as such.
Question 2: How well known is Elgar's Cello Concerto?
First of all, it is noteworthy that there are very early recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. An abridged recording dates from 1919, and a complete recording was made in 1928. In both cases, the cellist Beatrice Harrison can be heard, and Elgar conducts himself! After that, however, the piece was rarely played until British cellist Jacqueline du Pré ushered in something of an Elgar renaissance in 1965, when she was only 20 years old. Since her recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the piece has become one of the most frequently performed works for cello and orchestra.
Question 3: How many solo concertos did Edward Elgar compose?
Edward Elgar composed a violin concerto (1910) and a cello concerto (1919). He also began work on a piano concerto, but it remained unfinished.
2 Recommended Recordings of Elgar's Cello Concerto
Recording 1: Narek Hakhnazaryan, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša (live, 2019)
Recording 2: Bryan Cheng, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Giordano Bellincampi (live, 2022)
As you could already hear in the first recording, many young cellists are tackling Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I particularly admire the Canadian cellist Bryan Cheng, whose interpretation of Elgar’s composition with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and Giordano Bellincampi was made as part of the Queen Elisabeth Competition 2022: