On Radio 3 Now

In Tune

16:30 - 17:30

Sean Rafferty presents a selection of music and guests from the arts world.

Next On Air

17:30 Opera on 3

View full schedule

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919)


1 Adagio – Moderato
2 Lento – Allegro molto
3 Adagio
4 Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non troppo

The Cello Concerto was the last important work that Elgar wrote. Its first performance, in October 1919, with the composer himself conducting, opened the first post-war season of the London Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall. Most of the time available for rehearsal was taken by the other works in the programme, which were conducted by Albert Coates, and as a result the Concerto suffered. Ernest Newman wrote in The Observer: ‘The orchestra was often virtually inaudible, and when just audible was merely a muddle. No-one seemed to have any idea of what it was the composer wanted'.

How the light tread of the music became a shamble can be imagined.  Yet Newman himself did have an idea of what Elgar wanted: ‘Some of the colour is meant to be no more than a vague wash against which the solo cello defines itself.’ He went on to speak of ‘that poignant simplicity that has come upon Elgar’s music in the last couple of years’, by which he was referring not to patriotic and topical pieces such as The Spirit of England, but to three chamber works – a string quartet, a violin sonata and a piano quintet – which had been given their first performances at the Wigmore Hall the previous May.

Yet the Cello Concerto also harked back to Elgar’s last symphonic work, Falstaff (written in 1913), even though that was on a much more expansive scale. Falstaff contrasts bluff rhetoric and wistful reverie in a similar way, and the Times music critic H. C. Colles’s perception in it of ‘a mind that can think on a big scale, but loves to play with children far more’ could apply equally to the Concerto. Elgar’s portrait of Falstaff was one of contradictions, but throughout, he wrote, ‘runs the undercurrent of our failings and sorrows’. Falstaff was a man left behind by events, and by the end of the 1914–18 War Elgar felt the same had happened to him.

In Falstaff, Elgar had perfected the manipulation of episodes, the ability to change the subject without losing sight of it, and in the Cello Concerto he applied that mastery to a four-movement symphonic plan and gave it a sense of fluidity and caprice.

In the Concerto, the solo cellist doubles as narrator and protagonist, introducing and interrupting the course of events by way of linking them. His opening recitative is sketchily recalled at the end of the first movement, then cast aside as he scribbles ideas for the scherzo; after the first orchestral flourish of the finale he extends, in a sort of cadenza, a line connecting the shape of the original recitative to the finale’s main subject. The slow third movement, in its distant key of B flat major, remains apart, like a brief dream that reaches no conclusion. But Elgar does not leave it at that: towards the end of the finale the music broadens in a tide of lyrical passion which brings the mood of the Adagio back. It does not have the final say, for however strong the elegiac strain may be in the Concerto, it is, in the classic sense of the word, a comedy.

Programme note © Adrian Jack
Return to Notes index

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.