Disillusionment: Elgar

Imagine you are living in England in 1919. You are in your early sixties and have just had your entire world-view turned upside down over the past four years. Nine million people have just been killed in the deadliest conflict the world had ever known, World War I. You live in Sussex just across the English Channel from France where artillery fire can be heard for months at a time. While you’ve had a successful career, your compositions are becoming less and less popular. Your music is labeled “old” and “plain.” On top of that, you’ve just had an infected tonsil removed (a very dangerous operation at the time) and your wife of 31 years is about to die from lung cancer. You wake up from surgery in a daze, and as you recover, you write down a melody that just about sums it all up.

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These were Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) circumstances when composing his Cello Concerto in E Minor. Listen to the opening of the piece performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra:

Edward_Elgar,_posing_for_the_camera_(1931)The raw emotion is apparent from the first notes of this piece. Typically, concertos have an orchestral introduction before the soloist plays. In this case, it is the soloist who introduces the orchestra. It is also uncommon for the soloist to play with great difficulty in the first passages, but the first notes in Elgar’s Cello Concerto are very hard to play. This adds to the drama and tension. Here the cellist is playing triple stops, a technique where the player bows three strings at a time, while placing his fingers in the exact right spot on each string he’s bowing. Getting the tuning and volume to balance between the strings takes years, even decades to master.

This next clip conveys a great sense of loss. It could represent the death of an ideal or the realization that a certain reality we’ve come to rely on was actually an illusion. Perhaps your faith in humanity, or the goodness of God, or the love of a close one has been broken. All that is left is disillusionment and anger. Elgar captures these in the tone quality of the cello, which is not unlike the sound of the human voice. The minor key, the slower, solemn melody, and the dominance of the low instruments in the texture give the listener the message of sadness.

The process of publishing and premiering this concerto must have created disillusionment for Elgar in itself. The piece was rumored to be badly rehearsed and the first performance was a failure. It was not until the 1960s that the piece gained widespread popularity. Now it is an essential part of the literature that every serious cellist studies and performs.

All four movements of the concerto are worth hearing. Enjoy!

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