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Proms 2019
Elgar's Cello Concerto: from a flop to a Proms classic

The 2016 Proms shine a light on the cello, beginning with an English masterpiece

[WATCH] See the cello in a new light as Sol Gabetta performs Elgar's Cello Concerto

[WATCH] See the cello in a new light as Sol Gabetta performs Elgar's Cello Concerto

Those drawn-out opening chords are some of the most memorable in all music. Stern, sensitive and dramatic, they connect this 20th century masterpiece with another monolith of the repertoire, Bach's solo suites.

But you don't need to know your classical music to recognise the chords, nor the deeply moving melody that follows them. Edward Elgar began writing his Cello Concerto in E Minor in 1918, but it's in the last half century that it's become a true English classic, beginning with an elemental, uninhibited recording made by a then-20-year-old Jacqueline du Pré with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1965 (she also performed the piece at the Proms in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965). For many, that recording evokes the great decade of youth, optimism and experimentation just as much as pop and rock music, and you still see vinyl copies sat in collections next to albums by The Beatles and Rolling Stones.

The concerto has been recorded over 40 times since, and seeped into popular culture in other ways, too. It's slotted unobtrusively into film soundtracks, like this year's horror flick The Boy and 1997 war drama Paradise Road, and launched Radio 4's long-running Soul Music series in 2000, which examines the profound effect certain works have had on people. And it's being performed by Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta at this year's First Night of the Proms, more popular and relevant now than perhaps it's ever been.

[LISTEN] Radio 4 - Soul Music, Elgar's Cello Concerto

The birth of the piece

Elgar, who was born in 1857, has come to be seen by many as English music's most patriotic grandee, not least because of his first Pomp and Circumstance march, written in 1901. The following year, on the suggestion of Edward VII, the march became a song to celebrate the king's coronation with lyrics by A. C. Benson added to its 'trio' section, including the famous Land of Hope and Glory chorus.

Elgar intended his marches to inspire British troops fighting in the 1899-1902 Boer War, and the public back home. The First World War was different. He contributed patriotic songs, but with a heavy heart, and when his Coronation Ode became almost a second national anthem he claimed that the words embarrassed him, and he wanted them changed.

He had many German friends and had been welcomed and esteemed in Germany before British audiences paid him much attention. The son of his first love, Helen Weaver, and many of his finest musician friends fought and died in the war, severely disturbing Elgar. He had always suffered from depression; now he was always ill. His wife Alice, whose support had a considerable influence on him becoming a lauded composer, would succumb to her own illness less than a year after he finished the piece in 1919.

Edward Elgar in 1919
Edward Elgar in 1919

The Elgar who wrote the Cello Concerto was a different man to the Elgar of the Pomp marches. He had spent the war at war with himself and now he could see the musical firmament, whose approval he had sought all his life, moving away from him. "It is not really ugliness, and still less vulgarity that one craves as an antidote to the Elgarian type of beauty. It is the contrast of a more virile mind... touched by hardness," wrote The Times critic H. C. Colles in 1919. "What has he to say now, and have the years stamped their meaning on him in any profound way?"

The Cello Concerto is full of this elegiac, autumnal atmosphere, aware of the composer's own passing out of relevance. Large passages where the orchestra doesn't play turn the cello into a solitary roamer. Julian Lloyd Webber, whose rendition of the piece has been deemed the best by some critics, describes how Elgar emphasises the cello's loneliness: "The high woodwind and low strings leave the cello very much alone in the middle."

At this time, Elgar also wrote his finest chamber music - the String Quartet, Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata. The Cello Concerto was just as inward-looking but on a huge scale: worthy of the life extinguished by the Great War. A true Victorian, Elgar always wished to return to a childhood innocence than never truly existed. In the Cello Concerto, he had finally come to realise that this was impossible.

[LISTEN] Radio 3 - Discovering Music, Elgar's Cello Concerto

A flop at the time

It took half a century for the piece to achieve the standing it now has. The premiere was under-rehearsed, and in a review for the Observer, Elgar's friend Ernest Newman wrote that the orchestra was "lamentable" and that "no one seemed to have any idea of what it was the composer wanted", although he saw merit in the work, adding: "The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple - that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar's music in the last couple of years, but with profound wisdom and beauty… the realisation in tone of a fine spirit's lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of earth."

It wasn't a hit. For the moderns, it was too Elgar; for the Elgar fans, it wasn't Elgar enough. But Elgar knew its value, once claiming it to be "the best thing I ever wrote", and despite little audience appetite for the piece, insisted on including it when he was called upon to conduct his own works.

If you're ever walking on the Malvern Hills and hear it, don't be frightened - it's only me
Edward Elgar

He lived for 15 more years until 1934, and never completed another orchestral work of its size. When he came to give his works opus numbers, he marked the Cello Concerto as his final piece in retrospective terms, writing "Finis R.I.P" next to Op. 85, though he composed for years after it. And when the violinist and later Elgar biographer William H. Reed went to see him on his deathbed, he found the composer humming the first movement's theme. "If ever you're walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don't be frightened," said Elgar, "it's only me."

In the decades immediately after Elgar's death, it was forgotten that he lamented the war and looked to Europe as his musical mother. Intellectuals looked down on him as the composer of jingoistic and populist marches, and that reputation stuck for the following generations.

If you're ever walking on the Malvern Hills and hear it, don't be frightened - it's only me
Edward Elgar

Eventual immortality

In 1965, Jacqueline du Pré's recording of the work made it fashionable for other international cellists, and it finally became a staple of the repertoire. Du Pré lived in an age where classical musicians were treated like rock stars, and her marriage to the equally young and charismatic Daniel Barenboim, who is conducting three Proms this season (Proms 43, 69 and 70), ensured that what she played made headlines. Her subsequent tragic story - a brilliant career cut short by MS (she died in 1987, aged 42) - became interwoven with the melancholy of the piece. Yo-Yo Ma has said that he cannot play the Elgar without thinking of du Pré. Every recording since, whether it knows it or not, has been in dialogue with du Pré, either cleaving to or reacting against her.

[LISTEN] Radio 4 - Desert Island Discs, Jacqueline du Pré, 1977

A succession of biographical works around the same time as du Pré’s first recording (she would return to the Concerto five years later) led to a new appreciation of the composer himself and we now rightly see the work as one of the best pieces by a British composer, and possibly the most well-known orchestral work for the cello. We know it when we hear it, even if we don't know its name.

Julian Lloyd Webber, Brit Award-winning interpreter, on the Cello Concerto

"In my teens, I remember my father telling me I should listen to the Proms that night because the Elgar's on. It was one of the first times I'd heard of it. Although the piece took so long to become established, it was never itself a difficult piece to get into. It spoke to me immediately. My generation didn't have the preconceived notions of what Elgar should sound like, or the associations that made Elgar for a time unfashionable. It was just absolutely beautiful music.

"I've played it very many times, and every time I came back to it, I'd notice afresh how good the cello writing was. In terms of orchestration, he always lets the cello come through. The biggest problem with cello concertos is that the cello often gets swamped by the orchestra. You never have that problem with Elgar. It's the work of an absolute master."

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, BBC Young Musician 2016 winner

"It's every cellist's dream to play this piece. I first heard it when I was three- or four-years-old. It was the first cello piece that I fell in love with and the reason that I wanted to practise.

"It has such passion in its melodies that it can speak to all generations. Playing it, it's as if you can feel what the composer was thinking. It's written on a really nice place on the cello where it can really sing and you can express yourself."

Sol Gabetta, who will perform the piece at the First Night

"I first listened really hard to the Cello Concerto in 1997. It made an immediate and lasting impact on me as it's a truly remarkable work. But for a long time I avoided it - not because I felt intimidated by it, but because I felt that as a young musician just starting out I didn't want to rush into it with a false need to prove something to the world, or myself. I wanted to take my time and live with the piece and work out my own connection to it.

"I believe that it is one of the best works ever written for the cello. It is so characterful with so many facets: I love how the dynamics change throughout in a very subtle way, showing both the humanity of the piece and the suffering of the individual. Observing the fine details of this composition is the key to expressing the feelings of sadness, desperation and of being left alone, weeping. I am deeply moved by it every single time I hear it. I look forward to playing it anew every time, like meeting an old friend. I have just re-recorded it, this time with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle."

Five master renditions of the Cello Concerto

1. Beatrice Harrison with Edward Elgar and the LSO, 1928

Conducted by the man himself, it will always be the closest to what Elgar intended for his "darling". Beatrice Harrison was a du Pré of her day: a young virtuoso with a temperament perfectly suited to the work. Her performance is regular and unadorned but fluid. The quality of this early recording heightens the melody's ethereal aspect.

2. Mstislav Rostropovich with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, 1964

Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich

The great Russian master, a larger-than-life character, admired the Elgar for its balance and masterful orchestration, though he thought it more suited to a younger player. His interpretation, recorded just before du Pré's under Gennady Rozhdestvensky is lush, heroic, robust - everything du Pré reacted against in Elgar playing of the day. But it is no less valid for this.

Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich

3. Jacqueline du Pré with Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO, 1965

The young prodigy recorded it on the Davydov, a famous Stradivarius cello, considered to be the second-best instrument in the world. Du Pré's devilish gift and spirit are evident in this mercurial, hair-trigger rendition, as is her presence as a mesmerising live performer. Full of confidence and excitement, as well as more-than-slightly impatient, it was an antidote to the more stately recordings of the past.

[LISTEN] Radio 4 - Front Row celebrates 50 years of du Pré's historic recording

4. Yo-Yo Ma with André Previn and the LSO, 1985

Played on the same instrument on which du Pré recorded two decades earlier, Ma's first recording of the Elgar is a different beast, subtlely plaintive, gentle and intellectual. At times the solo melody phases in and out of audibility, barely there and ghostly, at other times it rises to the unerring, singing smoothness of tone that is typical of Ma's playing.

5. Julian Lloyd Webber with Yehudi Menuhin and the RPO, 1987

Conducted by Yehudi Menuhin, who recorded with Elgar when he was known as a world-famous young violin prodigy, this recording is a meeting of Elgarian titans. Lloyd Webber's interpretation maintains a healthy distance from du Pré’s and, because of that, seems both traditional and original. Solemn, steady and earnestly lyrical, it won a Brit Award, and has been named the definitive recording in many polls.

[LISTEN] Radio 3 - Building a Library, Elgar's Cello Concerto

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