Elgar: Concerto for Violin in B minor, Opus 61
BORN: June 2, 1857. Broadheath, Worcestershire, England
DIED: February 23, 1934. Worcester, England
COMPOSED: April 1909 to August 5, 1910, drawing on some material sketched as early as 1905. Dedicated initially “To Fritz Kreisler,” to which Elgar later added “and to my dear Yehudi Menuhin”
WORLD PREMIERE: November 10, 1910. Fritz Kreisler was soloist and Elgar conducted at a concert of the Philharmonic Society in Queen’s Hall, London
US PREMIERE: January 7, 1934. Jascha Heifetz with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1985. Pinchas Zukerman was soloist and Edo de Waart led. MOST RECENT—April 1998. Zukerman was again soloist and Stanisław Skrowaczewski led
INSTRUMENTATION: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and optional contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, optional tuba, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 45 mins
THE BACKSTORY Edward Elgar holds sway as an essential representative of the Edwardian Era, the late-Imperialist moment of British history named after the monarch who reigned over it—Edward VII, who on July 4, 1904 turned the composer into Sir Edward. The son of an organist in Worcester, Elgar enjoyed a none-too-spectacular career early on, deputizing for his father in church lofts, picking up a bit of instruction on violin, serving as bandmaster at the Worcester County Lunatic Asylum, and, in 1882, acceding to the position of music director of the Worcester Amateur Instrumental Music Society. By the mid-1890s he was deemed a name to reckon with, and in 1900 his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, presented at the Birmingham Festival, established him as Britain’s leading composer, a perfect embodiment of the plushly comfortable, healthily vigorous spirit of the Edwardian moment.
Among the fans of that oratorio was the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), who was just then staking a place in the firmament of fiddling, making his London debut (to great acclaim) in 1902 and two years later receiving the gold medal of that city’s Philharmonic Society. In 1905 Kreisler proclaimed to the Hereford Times: “If you want to know whom I consider to be the greatest living composer, I say without hesitation, Elgar. Russia, Scandinavia, my own Fatherland, or any other nation can produce nothing like him.…I wish Elgar would write something for the violin. He could do so, and it would certainly be something effective.”
In fact, Elgar had written music for solo violin by that time, but not much that was available to Kreisler. Three short pieces from 1877-78 had gone unpublished, and a few Elgar works for violin and piano had received performances in the 1880s and ’90s (including the salon favorite Salut d’amour of 1888). In about 1890 he drafted a violin concerto but then destroyed his work rather than complete it. By the time Kreisler officially requested a concerto from his favorite composer, in 1906, Elgar has already jotted down a couple of sketches for precisely such a project. But other tasks intervened, and Elgar found himself unable to devote any concentrated attention on his concerto until April 1909, when his wife inscribed in her diary that “E. [is] possessed with his music for the Vl. Concerto.”
Work proceeded at a deliberate pace, with Elgar’s letters reflecting his hopes—and also doubts—about the piece. On May 8 he allowed, “I have the Concerto well in hand…& it’s good! awfully emotional! Too emotional but I love it.” On June 16 he crowed, “I have made the end serious & grand,” but a week later he changed his tune to “I am appalled at the last movement….” Nonetheless, Elgar soldiered on, encouraged by the participation of William H. Reed, a violinist he had enlisted to advise him on technical questions relating to the solo part.
The premiere of the concerto—a work by turns grand, brooding, and heroic—marked one of the summits of Elgar’s career: the audience recalled him fifteen times, and Kreisler also received thunderous ovations. Kreisler would go on to play the piece often but he never recorded it. It had already been recorded twice (by Marie Hall, with the composer conducting, in 1916; by Albert Sammons, with Sir Henry Wood, in 1929) by 1932, when HMV harnessed the by-then seventy-five-year-old composer to the sixteen-year-old prodigy Yehudi Menuhin: their legendary reading has probably not been out of print since, and it inspired Elgar to add Menuhin’s name as co-dedicatee, with Kreisler, on the title page.
One also reads at the head of the score the secretive Spanish inscription “Aquí está encerrada el alma de. . . .” In a letter to the conductor Nicholas Kilburn, Elgar translated this line (worrying over the subtleties), “Here, or more emphatically In here is enshrined or (simply) enclosed—buried is perhaps too definite—the soul of? The final ‘de’ leaves it indefinite as to sex or rather gender.” Various of Elgar’s friends have been proposed as the possessor of that soul, but Elgar’s intent remains a mystery.
Altogether, the Violin Concerto is full of allusions, most of them kept private in the form of notations scribbled in the sketches. It is well to remember that the musical gestures were brimming with personal meaning for the composer. It is easy to succumb to the temptation to give these gestures biographical significance. We must, in the end, also remember that what Elgar chose to give us was not an autobiography but a violin concerto.—James M. Keller
THE MUSIC This might be the last great concerto to open with a long orchestral exposition in the manner of the great classical concertos and of Brahms’s. Elgar begins with the first idea he had jotted down in October 1905. Short ideas, often with a close family likeness, come thick and fast, coalescing into grand, richly varied paragraphs. The forceful beginning yields to a new, descending theme, begun in second violins and violas, and full of pathos. This moment of quiet is succeeded by the stir of anticipation that heralds the entrance of the soloist. We might expect her to begin as the orchestra did; indeed, the orchestra itself hints strongly that she should. But Elgar has something more poetic in mind. The excitement subsides, the orchestral violins restate the two opening bars and only then does the soloist step forward to complete the sentence—broadly and nobilmente.
A quietly eloquent recitative inaugurates a second exposition, whose character, to use Elgar biographer Jerrold Northrop Moore’s evocative term, is the translation of “orchestra ‘fact’” to “solo ‘fantasy.’” The development is stormy and the solo violin leads the conversation into a different, more melancholy continuation. The two primary themes reappear soon, extended, transformed, fantastically decorated, combined with other themes. Elgar builds the coda on what he described as an “affliction” of the opening phrase, and the movement is driven to a powerful conclusion.
The Andante is set far away, in B-flat major. The music is gentle. As the orchestra repeats its opening strain, the violin adds a melody to the middle of the texture. With the entrance of the soloist, the temperature rises, even though the dynamics stay generally quiet, and the music swiftly traverses new harmonic territories, eventually to land in a sensual D-flat major. The violin bursts melodic bounds with a wild and virtuosic phrase.
An intense climax is reached—and is swiftly left. The music subsides for a collected and regular recapitulation. But there is a remarkable change, so quietly and unobtrusively, so privately placed that one could almost believe it addressed only to the players: This time a slightly different chord introduces the solo violin’s wild phrase with the virtuoso leap, and it is a most unmistakable chord, Wagner’s famed invention from Tristan und Isolde. It even returns, still in utmost softness and brevity, three measures later. The coda is tranquil and hushed. The themes, their passion spent, converse quietly in the final bars.
The swirling sixteenths that propel the finale into being crackle with suppressed tension, but the brilliant figurations deceive us if they lead us to expect that, like the finales of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, this will be the lightest of the three movements. There is more unabashed virtuosity here than before. Many and varied themes pass by.
As in the first movement, the music grows tempestuous, with solo and orchestra often at loggerheads. The recapitulation brings the themes in reverse order, a device used now and again by composers since Mozart. The music goes by swiftly, and then we understand: All this is preparation for the extraordinary event that will become the Concerto’s emotional and structural focal point.
Neither the first movement nor the second made room for a cadenza, but now the music slows down for one. In this cadenza, virtuosity is, to be sure, an indispensable element, but it is unobtrusive. Recalling the past and reflecting on it is everything, as is hardly surprising in music that carries so much emotional freight.
The music dissolves in a trill. Cadenzas traditionally end in trills, but the end is not yet. The orchestra finds a phrase from the Andante, then falls silent again for the soloist to recall one of the first movement phrases. Then the great circle of the cadenza is closed. As at its beginning, we hear the orchestra play the Concerto’s opening bars, but this time the violin gives them their proper completion. And so we wake from the dream, from the play of memory, as violin and orchestra carry the Concerto to a swift, brilliant conclusion. And the last word—in the horns—is also the first.—Michael Steinberg
LISTEN AGAIN: Pinchas Zukerman with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (Sony)
Portions of James M. Keller’s note originally appeared in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and are used with permission. © New York Philharmonic
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.