The Elgar Cello Concerto

Sir Edward W. ElgarThe great British composer, Sir Edward Elgar, lived from 1857 to 1934, and his Cello Concerto in E Minor (Opus 85) is greatly admired by modern cellists. It is one of his final few great works (Elgar's wife died in 1920, and he composed no great works after that year). Elgar said that he meant it to musically explore the image of a man contemplating the meaning of life. The music is rather melancholic, though it possesses moments of great grandeur.

The first performance of the concerto was given on October 27, 1919 at Queen's Hall, London, with cellist Felix Salmond, and the London Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of the composer. Salmond was a brilliant cellist, with a rich powerful tone. Unfortunately there was very little rehearsal time, which infuriated Elgar, and the ruined rehearsal led up to a performance that was a disaster. At rehearsal, Elgar had entertained the idea of canceling the performance, but he continued, out of respect for Salmond, who had been working diligently on the concerto for several months. Neither audience nor critics were favorably impressed by the performance. Margaret Campbell quotes one of the critics: "...the orchestra made a public exhibition of its lamentable self." The Times thought it was "not a work to create a great sensation."

It was probably due to this bad start that it took quite a while for the concerto to gain its present popularity. Salmond rarely performed the concerto in England, and never performed it in America at all. When he became professor of cello at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he made little effort to teach it to his students. Margaret Campbell quotes Salmond's student and successor Orlando Cole: "As (his) student I was never urged to work at it. In the thirties there were no recordings of it available in America and, looking at the score, it appeared to our immature taste to be a very ineffictive sort of work. Of course we misjudged it entirely."

Soon after the disastrous first performance, Elgar made the acquaintance of English cellist Beatrice Harrison. Ms. Harrison had made her debut at the age of 19 with the Queen's Hall Orchestra, performing concertos by Haydn, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. She was an instant "hit" with the critics. He began performing in the United States soon after that (1913). She was the first woman cellist to play at Carnegie Hall, and the first woman cellist to solo with the Boston and Chicago Symphony orchestras. Elgar asked her to record his cello concerto. She recorded an abridged version soon after their meeting, and in 1928 she made a complete recording for HMV, with Elgar conducting. She also performed the concerto with Elgar at Queen's Hall, and the popularity of the concerto began to slowly grow in England. It was about this time that Ms. Harrison gave the first American performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto, and the Kodaly Solo Sonata. Harrison's mother died suddenly in 1934, and Harrison retired from performing. Piatgorsky gave a performance of the concerto that year (1934) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he had performed it already for several years in England and Europe. William Henry Squire (1871-1963) (Faure dedicated his "Sicilienne" to Squire) recorded the concerto in 1936. His recording was considered the best available at the time.

The popularity of the Elgar Cello Concerto continued to grow, but slowly. Sir John Barbirolli (who later became a very famous conductor) had been in the cello section of the LSO at the first performance with Felix Salmond. Speaking of cellist Leslie Parnas in 1957, Barbirolli said, "He was very keen to find out something about the Elgar Concerto which he did not know...Although played all over Europe it is practically unknown here..." (Quoted by Margaret Campbell, page 302 in The Great Cellists.)

Young Jacqueline du PreThe present great popularity of the Elgar Concerto is due in large measure to the performances and recordings of the legendary female cellist, Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987). du Pre was a child prodigy. She was introduced to the Elgar concerto at the age of 13 by her teacher, William Pleeth. She memorized the concerto in four days, and according to Pleeth already performed it "almost impeccably." du Pre gave her recital debut at Wigmore Hall in 1961 and became an instant sensation in England and around the world.

She made her New York debut on May 14, 1965, playing the Elgar Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antal Dorati. A New York Times critic wrote the next day, "She played like an angel, one with extraordinary warmth and sensitivity...Miss du Pre and the concerto seemed made for each other...her playing was completely imbued with the romantic spirit. Her tone was sizeable and beautifully burnished. Her technique was virtually flawless." (Quoted in The Great Cellists, by Margaret Campbell)

At the age of seventeen, the Elgar Concerto became du Pre's "signature piece." She performed it more often than any other concerto, and sold hundreds of thousands of recordings. Biographer Elizabeth Wilson wrote: "Jackie's insights into the complex world of Elgar's late music displayed a maturity and depth of vision extraordinary for her youth, and she was to be largely responsible for a re-evaluation of this concerto as one of the great repertoire pieces, on a footing with the Dvorak and the Schumann concertos." (page 80 in Jacqueline du Pre, Her Life, Her Music, Her legend)

Primary Source of Information: The Great Cellists, by Margaret Campbell

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