Elgar — Concerto Op.61
Violin Concerto in B minor Op.61 - Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)
The violin played a significant role in Elgar’s life. As a young man he aspired to becoming a concert violinist. Later, recognising his own limitations, he decided that his true calling was to compose. Nevertheless, he played in several orchestras in his native Worcestershire, and at the Three Choirs Festival, held annually at Worcester, Gloucester or Hereford, where, after he made his name, many of his greatest works would be heard.
Two early attempts at composing a violin concerto were abandoned, but when the famous Austrian violinist, Fritz Kreisler, asked him for a concerto, Elgar made further sketches but then set them aside to complete his hugely successful first symphony. However, in August 1909, his wife wrote that he had become ‘possessed with his music for the Violin Concerto’. He asked his friend W. H. Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, to play through the sketches and advise him on technical issues. On 10 November 1910, the premiere, with Elgar conducting and Kreisler as soloist, was rapturously received at the Queen’s Hall in London. Kreisler performed it throughout Britain, and the great Eugène Ysaÿe immediately took the work into his repertoire.
Kreisler described the concerto as the greatest since those of Beethoven and Brahms, but regrettably left no recording of his interpretation. In July 1932 the young Yehudi Menuhin recorded it for HMV with Elgar conducting, and this version rapidly became famous. Around the same time, the leading English violinist of his day, Albert Sammons, made what critics agree is an equally remarkable recording. Upon publication, above the dedication to Kreisler, it was discovered that Elgar had added and additional inscription on the score –a quotation in Spanish from Lesage’s Gil Blas: ‘Aquí está encerrada el alma de . . . . .’ (herein is enshrined the soul of . . . . .’). All Elgar would admit to was that the ‘soul’ was feminine.
Friends were dear to Elgar, and his wife Caroline Alice understood that his relationships outwith theirs could be significant to his work. Elgar’s letters reveal that the concerto is strongly linked to a close friend and confidante, Mrs Alice Stuart Wortley, daughter of the painter Sir John Millais. He refers to several themes in the concerto as ‘windflower themes’. ‘Windflower’, (a wild anemone) was his affectionate name for her, and Elgar loved nature and the outdoors. Some scholars believe that the ‘soul’ might be that of Helen Weaver, the Worcester violinist to whom Elgar was briefly engaged in 1883 before the barrier created by the difference in their religion proved impassable and, suffering from tuberculosis, she went to live in New Zealand. The secret of the ‘soul’ died with Elgar but the music speaks of noble and enduring love. As the writer Diana McVeagh so eloquently put it ‘whoever was the ‘soul’ Elgar wished to enshrine, he has enshrined his own, and the violin’s’.
Notwithstanding his eventual international fame, Elgar was a man of humble origins, and essentially self-taught as a composer. Samuel Langford, writing in the Manchester Guardian of Elgar’s eclecticism, said that he was ‘great because he is a mystic and has a personal style that will not be entirely subjugated to either one formalistic principle or another’. It is perhaps this aspect which, above all, continues to appeal to audiences across the world.
Allegro: in keeping with classical traditions of concerto form, Elgar establishes his materials with an extensive orchestral exposition, introducing fragments of several themes. The first of them, which will dominate the entire work, is harmonically ambiguous, and its mysterious qualities are only fully revealed later. The solo entrance is novel and dramatic. The first violins, returning to the opening theme, play the first two-bar phrase, but then the solo violin, rather than entering in a typical manner of commencement, actually completes the preceding musical line, marked ‘nobilmente’ (nobly, dignified). It gives way to a searching, musing quality, before once again becoming emboldened. The drama subsides and the main ‘Windflower’ theme is heard in its complete form, hushed and solitary, but soon the bold virtuosity and confidence return leading to the recapitulation of the soloist’s first entry. There follows a very free, improvisatory development section. Virtuosity returns, climaxing first in a bold, then a tender statement, of the ‘windflower’ subject – the ‘heart’ of the first movement. Idiomatic and robust violin writing brings the movement to its conclusion.
The Andante begins serenely and the solo violin sings in tandem with, or paraphrases the orchestral strings, but never imitates them exactly. Many musical keys are visited before a new, more impassioned melody is heard, again marked Nobilmente. (Only here did Elgar mark it with a capital N and a full stop). Grand and arching, perhaps it resembles the contours of the beautiful Malvern Hills which Elgar so loved: he once said that he would like this theme to be inscribed on his grave. The Nobilmente theme and gentler characters continue to combine tenderly. In the coda the soloist and orchestral strings muse softly, unable to put the memories to rest.
The extensive and dramatic Allegro molto Finale begins quietly with brilliant virtuosic swirls for the soloist, introducing the exuberant, and ultimately valedictory, marching theme, played by the orchestra and taken up forcefully by the soloist. Filigree interplay and a wonderful almost ‘outdoors’ melody – as if amid the breeze high on the Malvern Hills – is developed, before themes from the first and second movements are recalled. Just as the music seems on course for a conventional conclusion, the scoring is thinned down to almost nothing except for a muted horn, and a cold hushed timbre in the violins, and the mysterious accompanied cadenza begins –perhaps Elgar’s most novel and beautiful instrumental invention. The epitome of the concerto, its ruminations upon themes (particularly the ‘Windflower’ theme) reveal their inter-relationships. Elgar said it ‘sings of memories and hopes’. The accompaniment is gently ‘thrummed’ by the strings, a kind of pizzicato tremolando, invented by Elgar and suggested to him by the sound of an Aeolian harp hanging in the window of his study. Muted horns and hushed timpani add atmosphere. W. H. Reed said that one passage for violin alone moved Elgar nearly to tears as he painstakingly marked the directions on the notes to obtain the effect he wanted. Finally, the soloist recalls the very first nobilmente entrance. As the past is buried, the exciting present returns and the concerto ends with a sense of great joy; the marching theme, now broad and grand, leads to the final resolution of the nobilmente theme, emphatically played by the horns.
While composing the concerto, Elgar wrote to a friend: ‘It’s good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional, but I love it.’
Feargus Hetherington 2013