Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
I - Adagio; Moderato
II - Lento; Allegro molto
III – Adagio
IV - Allegro
Elgar was 57 when the First World War broke out, and was living with his wife (eight years older than he) in a large house in London . In 1910 his violin concerto had met with a rapturous reception, but his second symphony the following year met with a cooler response. He began to feel that perhaps his music was old-fashioned for the times. He wrote little in the first years of the war, and was often ill - then moved out of London to a rented cottage in Sussex , called Brinkwells. Here he regained both his health and his confidence, and in the two years 1918 / 1919 wrote four works, all in a new style, leaner and less lush than before. The first three were chamber music – a violin sonata, a string quartet and a piano quintet. The fourth was the cello concerto, the last major work he was to complete.
The cello concerto was premiered in 1919, in the opening concert of the LSO's first post-war season. Elgar conducted but it was not a success; another conductor took the rest of the programme and he left Elgar almost no rehearsal time, and the orchestra will not have been expecting the lean, spare texture. But the quality of the work shone through: an astute critic noted “… a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity ... a fine spirit's lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of earth." It was given a new lease of life by the emotional interpretations of Jacqueline du Pre in the 1970s.
The concerto is a very fine work, but its familiarity should not conceal from us what a remarkable one it is, too. The solo part is never showy, and has none of the usual brilliant passage work to show off the soloist's skills. The scoring is very thin, with often just a single line or a few delicate pointings to accompany the soloist. Except for the last movement, the tunes are hardly developed at all, just repeated. Yet despite all that, it is incredibly emotional – so much yearning, love, loss, grief, and even anger is conveyed by these few notes.
The cello solo opens the work with a bravura flourish – which rapidly fades out and the violas introduce the first main theme. This has several repetitions by soloist and orchestra, which are followed by a central section which is warmer and more hopeful, with a swaying melody. Then the first theme returns, and the movement ends bleakly. The second movement follows with no break, with a cello solo opening again, which is a variant on that in the first movement. It soon becomes a rapid, skittering dance, like the flight of birds. The accompaniment is of the utmost delicacy, with occasional darker colours caused by the rather unstable harmony, but mostly this movement flies in the light.
The third movement is very simple, a song for the soloist accompanied by strings alone with just a few wind chords. It is very intimate in its emotion. It ends expectantly, and leads directly in the vigorous finale. The finale, after another thoughtful opening for the soloist alone, tries hard to be a positive conclusion to the concerto. The music is constantly inventive, and expends a lot of energy in the process. But the tonality isn't stable long enough, and once the momentum starts to give out all the pent up pain and hurt, the passion and regret, come flooding out. Eventually we hear the opening flourish of the concerto again, with just one difference – this time it is punctuated by two savage chords from the whole orchestra. The final bars are no reconciliation.
Overture - Cockaigne "In London Town", Op. 40
For the whole of the 18th and 19th centuries, while Europe produced the baroque, classical and romantic composers from Bach to Beethoven to Wagner, England was known as the "land without music". We listened to it, we performed it, but we didn't write it. So when the first English composer of genius after Purcell (who wrote in the late 1600s) arrived in the person of Edward Elgar it is not surprising that that it took him some time to find his voice and reveal his genius. By the time he was 40 Elgar's fame was still only provincial - a leading light of the Three Choirs festival in the west country, but not known elsewhere. The Enigma Variations changed all that, and it was quickly followed by Sea Pictures, Dream of Gerontius and Cockaigne. Gerontius was soon performed all over Europe and when Richard Strauss publicly described Elgar as "a composer of real genius" England realised that the 200 years "without music" was over.
Cockaigne was written in early 1901 in the aftermath of Dream of Gerontius. Though it was soon successful the premiere of Gerontius had been a disaster. Elgar was furious and upset, but in a few weeks he was at work on a new piece. "I call it Cockayne and it's cheerful and Londony - stout and steaky". He had recently learnt the trombone and consciously made the trombone parts more substantial than usual. He finished it in March 1901 and it was first performed in London in June.
It starts tentatively and gradually picks up momentum into the first big tune which is in two parts. The first part is swaggering and jolly, and the second part broad and sweeping. It then subsides and the second theme is quieter, romantic and dreamy. With a swirl the first theme reappears. A longer quiet section with fragments of other themes leads to a big crescendo and the third theme, bold and martial on brass and percussion. This too subsides and a steady tread of feet takes us to the emotional heart of the piece ("two lovers only concerned with each other, among the trees of a London square"). The rest of the overture develops these themes in a mixture of swaggering ceremonial and tenderness, and it is the ceremonial which gives the rousing close.
Variations on an Orignal Theme (Enigma) , Op. 36
Dedicated to “My friends pictured within”
1 - C.A.E. (Caroline Alice Elgar, The Composer's Wife)
2 - H.D.S.-P. (Hew Daivd Steuart-Powell)
3 - R.B.T. (Richard Baxtet Townshend)
4 - W.M.B. (William Beath Baker)
5 - R.P.A. ( Richard Penrose Arnold)
6 - Ysobel (Isabel Fitton)
7 - Troyte (Troyte Griffith)
8 - W.N. (Winifred Norbury)
9 - Nimrod (A. J. Jaeger)
10 - Intermezzo: Dorabella (Dora Penny)
11 - G.R.S. (George Robertson Sinclair)
12 - B.G.N. (Basil G. Nevinson)
13 - Romanza: (Lady Mary Lygon)
14 - Finale: E.D.U. (The Composer)
The Enigma Variations was Elgar’s first major success, establishing him as a nationally important composer. It is also the first work he wrote not to commission, nor for any occasion, but just because he wanted to. Perhaps the inspiration was so much greater?
Elgar had tried to make a living in London but failed, and had to return to Malvern in order to get work. And a mixed bag it was: composing, teaching, and playing violin in the Three Choirs Festival orchestra. It is said that on returning home one evening in 1898, relaxing at the piano, he picked out a tune that caught his wife’s ear. “What’s that?” she asked. “Nothing, but something might be made of it …” replied Edward, and he played with it in different styles, as several of their friends might play it. Thus was born the idea of a set of variations for orchestra, based on an original tune, with each variation depicting in some way characteristics of a different person. The Variations were first performed in June 1899, by the conductor Hans Richter, to great acclaim.
The title “Enigma” was given by Elgar after he had finished writing it, and has caused much bafflement over the years. In fact, there may be several enigmas here. Elgar wrote in the programme notes for the first performance – “The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left un-guessed … further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played.” What did he mean? And is he saying there are two puzzles here, not just one? And when he says “theme” what does he mean – some other well-known tune, or a theme such as friendship? Elgar was always very keen on word games and puzzles, and was good at acrostics and crossword puzzles well into his old age. His letters are full of word play, and he loved teasing people. So he could have meant either – or even both. He took the answer with him to the grave, but that has not prevented endless speculation over the years!
The theme itself is interesting and unusual. It is short, in G minor, with a central section in G major. The outer sections are characterised by their pairs of notes in mirror image, two short and two long, followed by two long and two short. This pattern permeates the entire work, and is present in almost every variation. The middle section has a simpler rhythm, a rising line in thirds, while the last section repeats the first, but with the addition of a counter-melody in cellos and clarinet.
The variations that follow are:
C.A.E. – Alice, Elgar’s wife, gently depicted with a caressing accompaniment.
H.D.S-P. – Hew Steuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar played chamber music. After a spiky opening, the theme is clear in the cellos and basses.
R.B.T. – Richard Townshend, a real Edwardian “eccentric” who took part in amateur dramatics. The theme is quirky in flutes and oboes.
W.M.B. – William Baker, a country squire, and clearly a man who never stopped to listen to anyone else – or even breathe!
R.P.A. – Richard Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and mostly a thoughtful, serious man to judge by this variation.
“Ysobel” – the first of the other women pictured (Elgar always enjoyed female company). This is Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar’s, some 10 years his junior.
Troyte – Arthur Griffith, a very good friend and a very bad piano player. The rhythm of the theme (two short, two long) rattles along at high speed in bass and drums.
W.N. – Winifred Norbury, who with Elgar was joint secretary of the local orchestra. She was calm and serene, but with a delightful chuckling laugh.
Nimrod – Elgar’s publisher, German born August Jaeger. The emotional heart of the work, this derives from a conversation about Beethoven’s slow movements.
Dorabella – another of Elgar’s lady friends, Dora Penny, who had a slight stammer and loved dancing: both depicted clearly in this affectionate variation. The title “Dorabella” is a character in Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, and “bella” means beautiful.
G.R.S. – George Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral. This fast and short variation refers to his bulldog falling in the river, paddling his way out, and barking.
B.G.N. – Basil Nevinson, a cellist who played piano trios with Elgar and H.D.S-P. This and the next variation are both full of deep feeling.
* * * - A woman, but one whose identity Elgar was reluctant even to imply. It quotes from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”, which coupled with the rocking patterns suggest someone who was on a ship. The timpanist is asked to play with side-drum sticks to imitate the ship’s engines. Usually reckoned to be Lady Mary Lygon, who organised and conducted choirs locally, and was travelling to Australia, but there may be a memory of Elgar’s first fiancée Helen Weaver, who emigrated to New Zealand.
E.D.U. – Elgar himself (“Edoo” was his wife’s pet name for him). This is more than just another variation, it is a substantial finale. Quotes from two earlier variations appear – his wife Alice and Nimrod – before the blaze of triumph that ends the piece.
Overture "Froissart", Op.19
Following their marriage in 1889, Edward and Alice Elgar settled in London. Elgar hoped that the move would help him establish a national rather than purely local reputation but it was not to be. In truth, at that time Elgar had not written enough music of a quality to justify the status he aspired to. After eighteen months of relative hardship and considerable disappointment, he and Alice returned to live in their native Worcestershire.
It is therefore rather ironic that, while in London, he received a commission from the Worcester Festival Committee for a short orchestral work to be premièred at the 1890 Three Choirs Festival. Elgar composed most of the work during the spring of 1890, completing it in July in good time for the festival. It was his first major orchestral score, his first to be published, and his first to be reviewed seriously by the musical establishment.
Froissart received guarded approval by the critics, who tempered their praise for its originality and energy with criticisms of a degree of repetitiveness and the lack of a coherent development. This is a little harsh, for the score contains a youthful abundance of good tunes, even if Elgar is not very subtle in his development of them. The more perceptive critics commented on the promise they saw in the work, a faith which Elgar fully repaid in the decade to come.
The score is prefixed by a phrase from Keats "When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high!": for this concert overture describes the medieval age of knights and ladies, of chivalry and romance, of Arthur and Guinevere. The unusual title comes from the name of Jean Froissart, who was a French historian of the late 14th century, though he was rather more imaginative than historically accurate in his chronicles of the age.
In the South (Alassio), Op. 50
The concert overture In the South was written in Elgar’s maturity, after Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius but before the two symphonies and the concertos. He wrote it early in 1904 when Elgar and his wife visited Northern Italy over the Christmas and New Year period. He had gone to recuperate after a period of some depression that had seen him lose the tenancy on his home, and the death of a good friend at the age of just 42. The Elgars stayed at a villa in Alassio, but Elgar was still depressed, writing to his publisher “this visit has been, is, artistically, a complete failure & I can do nothing: we have been perished with cold, rain and gales … I am trying to finish a concert overture.” But luckily the weather improved, and he found inspiration in the pastoral countryside and reminders of Ancient Rome. He came home at the end of January, and the overture was completed by late February. It was first performed in March that year as part of a 3-day Elgar festival held at Covent Garden in London, and was conducted by Elgar himself. The festival was a great success, with the King (Edward VII) attending, and it doubtless contributed toward Elgar’s award of a knighthood later the same year.
Of all Elgar’s works, In the South is the most reminiscent of Richard Strauss in its rich orchestration (especially its use of the horns) and explosive energy. The exuberant opening has two main themes and several subsidiary ones, and is followed by a quieter section with a simple rustic melody on the clarinet. The strings comment on this, and then we have two contrasted episodes. First is a powerful passage that recalls the might of Ancient Rome, grinding everything down before it, in relentless 8-bar phrases that cycle through different keys. Second is a beautiful melody on solo viola, with the most delicate of accompaniment. (Elgar later set this tune to words from Shelley, and called it “In Moonlight”.) The final section recalls all the themes of the opening, including the quieter rustic passage, before a close that is emphatically triumphant.
Pomp & Circumstance March No. 4, Op. 39
Elgar wrote five marches, collectively known as Pomp & Circumstance. They were written between 1901 and 1907, and published as his Op 39, though the 5th was not published until 1930. The first is the famous "Last Night of the Proms" piece, whose big tune was set to words 'Land of Hope and Glory'. The fourth suffered the same fate, but only during World War 2 when the tune was often sung to patriotic words by A P Herbert "All men shall be free".
Sea Pictures, Op. 37
I. Sea Slumber Song
II. In Haven
III. Sabbath Morning at Sea
IV. Where Corals Lie
V. The Swimmer
Elgar wrote few songs, and Sea Pictures is his only song cycle with orchestra. He wrote it for Clara Butt, who gave the first performance at the Norwich festival in October 1899, in a dress that was said to represent a mermaid. The five songs are to poems by different authors, mostly now forgotten.
Sea Slumber Song is by Roden Noel and refers to Kynance Cove in Cornwall. The arpeggios and rocking motion depict a gentle shore by night, where "sea birds are asleep" and the "sea-sound like violins". It ends with a repeated "good night".
In Haven is a short and rather good poem by Elgar's wife Alice. There are three short verses, each ending with the enduring power of love, and the setting is indeed lovely.
Sabbath Morning at Sea is part of a longer poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The words are somewhat High-Victorian and Elgar sets it in a suitably grandiose manner.
Where Corals Lie is a delicate poem by Richard Garrett; the voice of the sea lures the poet to "the land where corals lie" - the sea floor. The accompaniment is subtle and playful, and conceals the menace of the implied drowning.
The Swimmer is by Adam Lindsay Gordon, and is bold and declamatory, though it also recalls music from earlier numbers.
Sospiri, Op. 70
Elgar wrote two major works for strings which are quite well known - the Serenade for Strings and the Introduction and Allegro. It comes as a surprise to many music lovers to discover that there is more, and in particular the short Sospiri. Sospiri is quite a late work, written in 1913 and first performed just after the outbreak of war in August 1914.
Though short, it is a major work of grave beauty, condensing years of nostalgic regret into a few minutes of music. It was written shortly after the death from cancer of Julia Worthington, an American whom the Elgars knew well, who was referred to by J.B.Yeats as "an intimate friend of the musician Elgar" and by Elgar's wife Alice as "our dear dear Pippa". Her illness and death upset Elgar and his wife deeply, and the Mahlerian intensity of Sospiri is something quite new in Elgar's music.
The first performance was in a promenade concert on 15th August, 1914, in a programme which reflected the enthusiasm and patriotism of the first weeks of the First World War - Sospiri was a premonition of the sadness and loss to come.
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op. 55
I. Andante. Nobilmente E Semplice
II. Allegro Molto
IV. Lento; Allegro
"There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future."
Elgar's own words above describe the creation of a mature man - Elgar was 50 years old when he wrote it. He had long thought of writing a symphony, and had planned one based on the life of General Gordon (how very Edwardian!) but this certainly isn't it. He had already completed several great and popular works such as Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius, but was still not confident of large scale symphonic writing. So he reworked some tunes he had written many years earlier into the "Wand of Youth" suite. It was while doing this that he came across the motto theme of this symphony (or rather it found him). His wife's diary for 1907 records the day : "June 27th. E much music. Playing great beautiful tune". This tune, with its stalking bass line which is so much part of it, is the emotional heart of the symphony - indeed the symphony can be seen as a journey to understand this theme in all its aspects, and in its underlying essence.
The symphony claims to be in A flat, and the motto theme is indeed in A flat on all its appearances - at the opening, at the end of the first movement, and at the end of the last movement. But the first and last movements are mostly in D minor, the key the most remote from A flat (try playing the two chords on a keyboard and hear the jarring effect) while the middle movements are in F sharp and D major. So although the essence of the symphony, the motto theme, is in A flat, the symphony itself definitely isn't - despite what it says at the top of the score.
The symphony was written in 1908 and was first performed by the Halle Orchestra in Manchester on 3rd December under the conductor Hans Richter. Elgar dedicated the score to Richter, in appreciation of his advocacy of Elgar's music in Britain and abroad. The symphony was an immediate success, and in just over a year received 100 performances, all over the world.
The symphony opens with the motto theme, great and beautiful, but also noble and spiritual, beyond everyday trivia. The main tune of the allegro which follows with a jolt is the opposite - passionate and energetic, and feels to be struggling towards something, searching for something. The tune gradually transforms, sliding into a calmer 6/4 rhythm, becoming a delicate arabesque on the clarinet. A second subject appears, on violins and then cellos, which somewhat recalls the spirit of the motto, but the mood doesn't last - there is work to be done! More energy and struggle, and the delicate clarinet arabesque from earlier is transformed into music of bitter power. At this revelation of struggle in what had previously been grace the music collapses, and the motto reappears briefly "as through a glass darkly". But we move on, and continue to explore the implications of the allegro main theme, mostly in 6/4 time and with many hesitant rubatos. A surging, heaving figure appears which leads to new moods, and a big climax based on the second subject. This subsides into delicate fragments of veiled mysticism including a faint echo of the motto. What now follows is a condensed summary of the journey so far, with all the main themes up to the theme of bitter power, now with even more explicit terror. This time collapse is complete, and the motto emerges from the back desks of the strings - "it's there, but you can't tell where" said Elgar. But the motto does not have the last word - instead the movement slips away with echoes of what has gone before; a sad review of failed opportunities and an essence not yet grasped.
The scherzo is in a rapid 2/4 time and is based on a scurrying semiquaver pattern, followed soon by a cocky little march tune on violas. Both march and semiquaver pattern are hammered out fortissimo, and then a wistful tune appears which Elgar once described as "like something we hear down by the river". These themes are developed separately and together, firstly the march and the scurrying semiquavers and then the wistful theme, now very loud and not at all wistful. But then the music gradually unravels, as the semiquaver pattern slows to triplets, to quavers, and to crotchets, with echoes of the motto theme above, and echoes of the march below. Gradually peace descends, and in the most magical transformation, the adagio reveals itself. Amazingly, the beautiful main theme is note for note identical with the unravelled semiquavers from the scherzo - but how utterly different in emotional meaning. The second subject is even more glorious, with the most passionate yet tender love music Elgar wrote. And so this amazing creation winds on (Richter described it as "a real adagio such as Beethoven would have written") until coming to rest at last in utter peace.
The finale starts in groping mystery, back in D minor again, with a sinister muttered question based on the motto theme. There is a hint (from the back desks of strings again) that the answer is the motto itself, but once more a big allegro movement blows up, all energy, strife and struggle. Several times the question from the introduction is repeated, ever louder and more aggressive, but always the answer is simply to pile on more and more energy. Suddenly a "wrong note" C flat rings out, instantly the hurly burly stops, and a wonderful consoling tune rolls out (in E flat minor, just a semitone up from the D minor before). And more wonderfully, we hear without realising it that this tune is note for note identical with the D minor question : so the answer was contained in the question all the time, and we only had to shift our viewpoint by a semitone to see it! This glorious tune expands into the whole orchestra, with both harps adding ever richer ornamentation. This has brought us back to A flat (at last!) and now, when the orchestra repeats the original question one last time, the horns respond with a jubilant shout leading to the real answer - the motto theme in its full ecstatic glory surrounded by fireworks of string and wind decoration.
I am reminded of T.S.Eliot's words in his Four Quartets - "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time".
Symphony No. 3
I. Allegro molto maestoso
II. Scherzo - allegretto
III. Adagio solenne
elaborated by Anthony Payne
After the death of his wife Alice in 1920 Edward Elgar wrote little new music, though he was very active in the recording studio. Towards the end of his life he began to return to large scale composition, with attempts at an opera and dabbling with ideas for a symphony. Elgar's old friend George Bernard Shaw had often badgered Elgar about a possible third symphony, and suggested that the BBC might be persuaded to commission it. Eventually, in December 1932, the BBC announced a formal commission, and Elgar spent much time during 1933 working on the symphony, sometimes playing fragments of it with his friend the violinist W. H. Reed.
Tragically, the work was to be cut short. In October 1933, after an exploratory operation, cancer was diagnosed and Elgar declined rapidly. He composed no more and died in February 1934, leaving over 130 pages of sketches for the unfinished symphony.
"The symphony is all bits and pieces, no-one would understand it, no-one. Don't let anyone tinker with it. I think you had better burn it." The words of Elgar to Reed, in his last months, were clear. But (unlike Sibelius) Elgar had not burnt it, and Reed didn't burn it either: in fact he published over 40 pages of the sketches in his book "Elgar As I Knew Him". And Elgar had also said to his doctor "If I can't complete the third symphony, somebody will complete it, or write a better one, in fifty or a hundred years." Thus began a long argument, carried on continuously over the last 60 years, as to whether the sketches should or should not ever be worked up into a completion.
In 1993, the composer and musicologist Anthony Payne was invited by the BBC to "put the sketches into some sort of shape for workshop performance". He had completed a version of both Scherzo and Adagio - the movements Elgar himself had most nearly finished - when the Elgar family, owners of the copyright, refused permission for the project to continue. However a BBC Radio 3 talk in March 1995 was permitted, which aroused much interest, and Payne soon believed he knew how Elgar had intended the first movement to be completed, too. Events now moved quickly and the family, realising that the sketches would soon be out of copyright protection altogether, decided to control the situation by commissioning a complete version of the symphony from Anthony Payne. And so, 65 years after commissioning it, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of Elgar's 3rd symphony in February 1998, where Payne received a standing ovation. The symphony has since been performed all over the UK, in Europe, and in New York, Chicago and Washington. Tonight's performance is the first in the East Midlands area.
All four movements are quite substantial, and the whole work lasts almost an hour.
The first movement is big, bold and powerful, with two main tunes presented - a powerful opening motto, grinding in bare fifths, and later a gentle and tender second theme. The exposition is repeated, and then both tunes are developed at some length, first separately and then together. The end of the movement, when it comes, seems quite abrupt and unexpected.
The allegretto scherzo is in Elgar's whimsical vein, and is quite lovely. The opening theme is a light dance - the use of the tambourine is clearly indicated by Elgar! A second section is more vigorous and threatens to become serious, but slips into a third theme, wistful and elusive. At the end the first theme reappears, but seems simply to evaporate.
The slow movement probes the darker emotions of grief, emptiness and aching nostalgia. It opens with a chromatic motto, immediately repeated by a solo viola. The harmonies are strange and groping, and a horn theme tries to emerge. After a tender interlude a second theme appears, but disappears into filigree tracery. The big climax that one expects, despite a bold attempt, never fully materialises, and the movement reverts to the mists from which it emerged. At the end the solo viola repeats the question it posed at the very beginning, but receives no answer.
The finale returns to the bold and heroic style of the first movement and, after a martial fanfare-like opening, offers three main themes: the first a swaggering march-like motto theme, the second characterised by a stalking bass line, and the third a broad sweeping melody, of the kind so often marked nobilmente in Elgar's scores. The final iteration of the first tune is particularly effective, building up to a big climax before it fades away, leaving the last word to a solitary tam-tam stroke.
III. Allegro Molto
The violin concerto is a doubly personal work for Elgar: it is his biggest composition for his own instrument, the violin, and it is his only composition known to be directly inspired by another person.
The year 1908 had seen the premiere of Elgar's first symphony, a work that had been in his thoughts for many years, for he regarded “the symphony without a programme as the highest development of musical art ”. Fearful of comparison with the likes of Beethoven, Elgar had delayed creating his own symphony. But when he did so it was an unprecedented success, which sealed his reputation as a composer of not just national but international importance. Every orchestra in Britain, and many in Europe, changed their programme plans to include the new work, and it was performed over 100 times in the first year.
However, Elgar was now past 50 years old; an age for reflecting on past achievements, and viewing the future with different eyes - especially for a sensitive artist surrounded by the jingoistic trappings of Edwardian England.
The violin concerto was written in 1909 under the inspiration of Alice Stuart Wortley, a woman Elgar and his wife had known distantly for a few years. She was the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais, and wife of a prominent MP. Both she and her husband were highly musical, and very competent pianists. Elgar courted her interest and friendship, and clearly found her very stimulating. He became frustrated that she shared Christian names with his own wife, Alice, so he devised a nick-name for her, “Windflower”, an old name for the wood anemone. There was nothing furtive about this: the Elgars and Stuart Wortleys all became good friends. But Elgar wrote many revealing comments during its composition … “This is going to be good! “Where love and faith meet, there will be light”.” and later “It's good! awfully emotional! too emotional but I love it”. After completing it he wrote to ‘Windflower' herself “I have put it all in my music, & also much more that has never happened.” And in enigmatic vein, he puts at the top of the score “Aqui esta encerra el alma de …..” (Herein is enshrined the soul of ….. ) Make of all that what you will!
Some people find the concerto difficult to follow, and I think this may be because the tunes are not quite what we expect from Elgar. We expect long sing-able tunes such as Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, the great motto theme from the first symphony, the opening of the cello concerto, and (finest of all) the tune now known as “Land of Hope & Glory”. But what we have in the violin concerto is themes that grow outward from small cells, where the essence of the theme is contained in just a bar or two, but it then expands into many bars of echo and answering phrases. The course of the music is not I think, about developing themes outwards (which would be normal), but is about looking inwards, to discover the true heart of these themes. This becomes most evident in the enormous accompanied cadenza that comprises the second half of the last movement, where the soloist first explores and then uncovers, with the utmost poignancy, the essential heart of several of the concerto's themes. I know of nothing else quite like this in all music.
The concerto is long – about 50 minutes in total – and is in three movements of roughly equal scale. The first movement opens with an orchestral passage that presents the three main themes. The first theme is bold, the second tender, and the third a little slower and thoughtful. After the orchestra re-states the first theme, the soloist enters and makes his own comments on all three themes in succession, with florid decoration. The soloist whips the orchestra into an exciting climax on the second and third themes, no longer thoughtful but strident and powerful. After being briefly becalmed, the music passes through complex development, where the soloist shows that all three themes, but particularly the third, can be interpreted in many different ways. After a climax on the third theme, the soloist races the orchestra to the close.
In the Andante it becomes harder to distinguish separate themes, for they all seem to be different aspects of one. When the tonality sinks from B-flat to D-flat a passionate new motto appears (though it is only a few notes long) to which the soloist responds with equally passionate decoration. This motto theme also ends the movement, in reflective mood.
The finale sets off in a whirl, and it is a good 30 bars before the march-like main theme arrives, with strong accents thrown onto odd beats of the bar. The urgency is relieved by an expansive theme in a slower tempo, and then a delicate third theme characterised by its repeated opening notes. All three themes are then developed in succession, while retaining their individual character. But then, as if Elgar realises that this developmental energy is not going to work, the music subsides into the accompanied cadenza, in which the soloist muses at considerable length over the first movements main themes, and lets them fly away - like Vaughan-Williams' Lark ascending to the heavens. The very last two bars of the cadenza are also the first two bars of the whole concerto. The coda picks up the initial tempo and feel of the finale, and with a dramatic restatement of the march-like theme brings the concerto to a brisk and brilliant conclusion.