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A Hundred Years Of Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto’

Celebrate the centenary of the premiere of Edward Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto’ by exploring the story behind the legendary masterpiece.

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Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, goes the old joke. And no-one understood that paradox better than Edward Elgar, the high priest of English musical nostalgia. By the time he reached his artistic peak – and he had already come to the table quite late – he was considered old hat and backward-looking by the critics, and he often felt himself to be a man out of his time. So, as the centenary of the premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto approaches, it seems a good time to redress the balance, and see how the fortunes of this once-derided masterpiece strangely mirrored the composer’s own.

Listen to Elgar’s Cello Concerto performed by Julian Lloyd Webber, described as “the finest ever version” by BBC Music Magazine, right now.

A Hundred Years Of Elgar’s Cello Concerto

You have to feel sorry for cellists. There are far fewer concertos for their instrument than for the piano or violin, and of the ones which exist, only two are generally considered masterpieces. One is by Dvořak, and the other – just in case you hadn’t guessed – by Elgar. It pulses with a particularly intense nostalgic melancholy which Edward Elgar could tap into so well, and creates an unforgettable atmosphere of profound yearning. But these aren’t the only reasons for its success. Elgar’s masterly orchestration ensures that the instrument is alternately a partner and an adversary of the orchestra in true concerto style, and that the delicate sound of the cello is never swamped. Julian Lloyd Webber, whose 1985 recording was hailed by BBC Music Magazine as “the finest ever version”, once suggested that the orchestration also cleverly emphasises the cello’s solitariness and increases the mood of loneliness. “The high woodwind and low strings leave the cello very much alone in the middle of the texture,” he said.

We find drama and conflict too, when the cello seems to tussle with the orchestra. And there’s beauty, and melodic richness, and heroic grandeur… the list goes on. Safe to say, it’s a copper-bottomed, cast-iron masterpiece.

And yet, when Edward Elgar came to prepare a catalogue of his works, he wrote “Finis. RIP” next to the Concerto. He lived another fifteen years after writing it, but somehow saw it as the signifier of his artistic death. And in a way, it was. He did publish more music after 1919, but nothing on the scale of the Cello Concerto. And he never saw it take the pride of place among the great works of all time. That would happen only thirty years after his death.

First performance

The first performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto occurred in London on 27 October 1919, with Felix Salmond as soloist and the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. It was a fiasco. The conductor of the rest of the programme over-ran his rehearsal schedule for other works, and didn’t allow enough time for Elgar to prepare the orchestra. “Never has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself,” wrote a prominent critic at the time. Ouch.

But it wasn’t only the fluffed notes and disarray of the accompaniment that held the concerto back. In a febrile post-war world in which jazz, modernism, and women’s rights were the order of the day, Elgar’s nostalgia was seen as out of touch. The critic of The Times complained that he lacked a “virile mind touched by hardness” and that audiences needed an “antidote’’ to his music, as if it were somehow poisonous.

Edward Elgar had already suffered ill-health and bouts of depression for some time, and the concerto’s premiere tipped him over the edge into an artistic malaise which lasted on and off until his death in 1934.

Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary recording

The concerto was played occasionally over the next few years, but it was not until the advent of Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary recording in 1965 that it was recognised as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. Du Pré, who was only twenty at the time, made the work seem youthful and sexy. She blew the cobwebs off it, and revealed a kind of adolescent fury and mercurial whimsy in the piece which caught the public’s imagination. It was remarkable too that her conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, had played in the orchestra at the premiere, and had even performed the concerto as a soloist himself. He knew the work inside out.

Julian Lloyd Webber’s recording described as “the finest ever version” by BBC Music Magazine

It opened the floodgates. Plenty more recordings followed, and now any cellist worth their salt has the piece in their repertoire. Julian Lloyd Webber’s BRIT award-winning version was released in 1985, and he said recently that “recording Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the inspirational Yehudi Menuhin as my conductor was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” Like Barbirolli, Menuhin had known Elgar personally, and his input brought another level of artistic magic to the proceedings. Julian Lloyd Webber’s recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yehudi Menuhin was described as “the finest ever version” by BBC Music Magazine.

Now the formerly ugly duckling is in danger of becoming a war-horse, to mix a metaphor. So popular is the piece, and so well-known its melodies, that film producers confidently insert it on soundtracks for a bit of instant atmosphere. It was used, appropriately enough, in the TV adaptation of John Mortimer’s state-of-the-nation satire Paradise Postponed (1986) and in the stirring wartime women’s-camp drama Paradise Road (1997). But it turned up in the silly schlock-horror flick The Boy (2016) too, and you can find it in countless other movies. It’s not bad for a piece which seemed for a while as if its fate were to end up unloved and unplayed on a library shelf somewhere.

Edward Elgar would have been thrilled to know that the public has finally taken his favourite work to heart. When a friend visited him on his deathbed, he found the composer humming the tune of the concerto’s first movement, and dreaming of its immortality after his death. “If ever you’re walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don’t be frightened,” said Elgar. “It’ll only be me.”

Listen to Music In The Air: 100 Years Of Elgar’s Cello Concerto presented by Julian Lloyd Webber on Classic FM on Sunday 27 October from 5-7pm. The two-hour show will conclude with Julian’s complete performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yehudi Menuhin.

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