Edward Elgar’s birthday was Monday (he would have been 157 years old), so it seems appropriate to ask the question, who was he? There are many layers to parse here. First off, there’s the physical appearance; somewhat out of style even in his own time.
He was the most important English composer in roughly two-hundred years, and he came to prominence at roughly the same time as Bela Bartok, Leos Janacek, and Antonin Dvorak – all noted nationalists. Yet he didn’t really consider himself to be a nationalist composer and concerned himself more with melodic invention, than in purposefully seeking out the music of his people; he would leave that to his successors, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. He shot to prominence like a rocket after the premiere of the Enigma Variations (or more properly called the Variations on an Original Theme) in 1899, but his professional reputation was shot down just as quickly by the premiere of the first Pomp & Circumstance marches in 1901 – you know, the ones that are played at every graduation ceremony. Although he lived until 1934, his last major work was published in 1919 – the same year as Schoenberg’s seminal masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire announcing a total break with everything that had been musical reality beforehand. As contemporary music moved further and further into deeper and stranger waters, Elgar stayed stubbornly where he was, and so the musical world passed him by. His legacy as a musician remained mixed – a man of paradoxes and anachronisms creating a cloud of a reputation which separated the man from the people.
Just as it is difficult to suss out the real Elgar from the reputation, his music also requires a clear, and steady hand to appreciate. A fan of bravado and grand effects, he once said “If a composer writes for forty harps, get him forty harps!” There is also a certain rhetoric to his writing, and these two perspectives lend themselves to overwrought interpretations of his music – a favoring of sentiment over sensitivity. Towards the end of his professional career, he preferred conducting to composing – conducting in over fifty recording sessions. This may be due to an ornery discontent related to the presentation of his own works; “if only people would be content to play the music as it is written down in the score,” he complained.
I first encountered Elgar’s Cello Concerto earlier this year when I played it with the Glens Falls Symphony, and my first impression of this concerto was nothing short of bewilderment. I’ve played Mozart’s concertos, Brahms’ concertos “against” the soloist, and several contemporary concertos thanks to my work with the Albany Symphony, but this was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It’s almost more like an opera aria with its long singing lines, except that the cello is relegated to accompanimental work as frequently as it is put on a pedestal. The melodies in this first movement are long, winding, wandering, searching, almost prayerful endeavors which might beg the indulgence of the audience if it weren’t so stoic. It’s easy to imagine autobiographical content here – a strong, individualistic voice wondering where the music around it is going while trying to remain true to its own purpose. It only seems appropriate, on his birthday, to remember a maverick of a musician with a maverick of a concerto.