Late Grandeur of the Empire Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto and Violin Sonata - An Essay by Christi
He may have been arguably not the most “English” of composers—from a historical perspective, certain of his colleagues, such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, might properly lay claim to this title given their work with original folk music. However, one would no doubt mention him as the most prominent musical representative of the British Empire, who more than anyone else accompanied the Victorian era over decades with his creative work, who reflected and ultimately bore witness to its demise. His most internationally famous perennial hit, the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, to this very day represents the unofficial national anthem of the island country and is sung by the English to the words “Land of hope and glory” (text by A. C. Benson) at all ceremonies: We are speaking of Edward Elgar (1857–1934), who with weighty works such as four oratorios, several cantatas and two symphonies, was never really able to settle down on the European mainland, presumably because in his aesthetic he represented a segment that was dominated by Johannes Brahms on the European continent. Above all the “Enigma” Variations and the two concertos for strings (the Cello Concerto and, to a somewhat smaller extent, the Violin Concerto) certainly entered the international performing repertoire. Role models can generally be found particularly in the works of the composer from Hamburg who settled in Vienna, Johannes Brahms, as well as the Irish composer who settled in England, Charles Stanford, whereby Elgar formed his own very personal idiom.
With regard to the pieces recorded on this album, it should be mentioned that Elgar’s preferred personal instrument was not the piano, as with most composers, but rather the violin. It was in November 1890—he had just scored his first success with an orchestral work with the “Froissart” Overture, Op. 19—when Elgar first turned to composing a violin concerto. His express purpose was to compose a masterpiece, yet after completing a major part of it he recognized that it was most definitely not in line with his original intentions and as a result he allegedly destroyed it altogether. It would take two decades and several hits in the meantime, including the “Enigma” Variations, the first four of the five Pomp and Circumstance marches, and the First Symphony, before Elgar returned to the genre. This time, he persisted and the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 61 was completed in March of 1910. Characteristic for this work are, next to its unusual length and its great technical demands, the almost continuous virtuosity and the intimate lyrical moments. For its formal design, pointing out Elgar’s rather unusual working method for most of his works is revealing: He incessantly sketched out works which he wanted to compose. Working concretely on a composition often resulted in fragmentary blocks. As a result, both rough sketches and whole fragments were often integrated into the new work, but they were just as often heavily altered and sometimes discarded altogether. He thereby constitutes the opposite of both types of composers, who either have an entire work in their heads prior to writing it down or who work out a piece from the very beginning according to formal patterns. This also explains the rather rhapsodic character within the three movements of the Violin Concerto. At the same time, however, the constant flow is maintained throughout the entirety of the work. Already the broad orchestral exposition of the opening movement (Allegro) sets the flow in motion with three themes straightaway, before the violin takes up this material. As a result, the exact progression of the sonata form used in this movement is difficult to define: After a large-scale development section, the entrance of the recapitulation is hardly identifiable, and even an explicitly crafted cadenza by the solo instrument is missing, after its intensive presence throughout the entire movement. The second movement (Andante) likewise begins with developing the primary motivic material, which is already captivating in its cantabile. Soon, however, emerging seemingly from nowhere, the secondary theme arises with full intensity from the flow. Initially played by the violin, before being taken up by the orchestra, it is without a doubt among the most beautiful and moving melodies Elgar ever devised. In its elegiac manner it is probably most closely related to the “Nimrod” section from the “Enigma” Variations. Precisely by means of this melody one can very easily imagine that highly personal moments influenced the composition of this work. Charles Sanford Terry, a musicologist who was friends with Elgar and also had a hand in proofreading the Violin Concerto, said that Elgar never spoke emotionally about his own music—with the striking exception of this one work, about which he is said to have uttered the words, “I love it.” The Finale (Allegro molto) is characterized equally by its thematic richness as well as its elaborate craftsmanship. At the end of this movement, one also encounters one of Elgar’s unexpected surprises: Just as the movement seems to fade to silence, a new beginning arises, leading to the magnificent coda—an imposing apotheosis that seems like one final, proud uprising; metaphorically, it is like a dignified farewell by the fading empire, ending with a jubilant major chord.
The concerto was custom-tailored for the Viennese virtuoso Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962) and dedicated to him. The Spanish saying “Aqui está encerrada el alma de.....” (“Herein is enshrined the soul of.....”) is also written into the score, referring to the novella Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage. Yet whose soul is meant by Elgar in place of the five dots remains a mystery which he left open in his works for the audience to interpret. None of the theories on this matter can be corroborated with any certainty. In his monograph which was published in German translation in 1957, Fritz Kreisler’s biographer, Louis P. Lochner, cited a remark by the violinist about Elgar and a concerto that had been promised to him which has been widely circulated in numerous variants: “Just like every other concert violinist, I would be happy to receive new concertos! Yet where are they? Sir Edward Elgar promised me one three years ago. If he ever writes it, he’ll do so more out of enthusiasm than to earn money. However, I am unable to get so much as a single note from him!” On July 1, 1910, the composer afforded Kreisler a look at the short score, whereupon Kreisler said: “With this concerto I’ll bring an earthquake to Queen’s Hall.” The world premiere of the concerto ultimately took place on November 10, 1910—indeed at Queen’s Hall—as part of the opening of the 99th season of the London Philharmonic Society. On the podium of the London Symphony Orchestra stood no less than the composer himself. Kreisler subsequently played the work at numerous other opportunities, thus gaining publicity for the concerto such that it was eventually taken up by other artists as well. Kreisler never did end up recording the concerto as planned, although Elgar recorded it in the fall of 1932 with the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin, who was already achieving success as a young genius.
Compared with the length of the large-scale concerto, the Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op. 82, composed in August and September 1918, exhibits average dimensions at barely thirty minutes. This work seems more intimate yet enigmatic than the Violin Concerto. It would seem obvious to draw a parallel between the sonata and the First World War that was coming to a close. During these years, Elgar got patriotically highly involved for a prominent composer and wrote all kinds of propaganda pieces which nowadays, mostly rightly, receive mention in his catalog as minor works. The end of the war may have brought victory for Great Britain, yet people were well aware of the enormous loss of human life and the damage, and Europe was in a disastrous economic condition, and even the Irish War of Independence also cast its shadow. Elgar also had a tonsillectomy at that time, which required hospitalization and weighed on him. The suspicion that Elgar had already lost some of his creative powers at this time can of course not be substantiated, as the Violin Sonata, as well as the String Quartet, Op. 83 (1918), the Piano Quintet, Op. 84 (1918) and the Cello Concerto, Op. 85 (1919) attest. One should rather judge the very serious, seemingly restrained and no less technically demanding sonata in view of the above-mentioned circumstances. The first movement (Allegro) is rather pressing, yet it also repeatedly shows resignation. For wide stretches, this movement is unexpectedly kept not in its tonic of E minor, but rather A minor, and in the final measure it comes to an entirely unexpected conclusion on an E major triad. If the listener seeks a generally brighter mood for the subsequent middle movement (Romance: Andante), this expectation is only partially fulfilled. This movement is rather playful, indeed almost capricious, yet genuine happiness is not to be f
ound. The composer himself described it pointedly as “fantastic” and “curious.” Like in the concerto, the middle section of this second movement is characterized by the greatest cantabile. The finale (Allegro, non troppo) is full of elegance and brings the sonata to a conclusion in a nearly solemn character and with virtuosity. Elgar intended to dedicate the sonata to Marie Joshua, a friend of the family, yet she died before it could be completed. After several private performances, the public premiere of the sonata was performed by William Reed and Landon Ronald on March 21, 1919 in London’s Aeolian Hall as part of a concert by the British Music Society.
translated by Albert Frantz