I think I’d be surprised if you DIDN’T have a strong reaction to the Elgar Cello Concerto. I’m glad that you did, lest I come to suspect (especially after our letters on the Beethoven concerto) that you are an automaton in disguise!
The cello concerto conveys a pathos which is borne largely from the circumstances surrounding its composition. Yet, as the comments for du Pre’s performance suggest, this pathos is also universal. Even though the piece is closely tied to WWI it still speaks powerfully to the human heart nearly a whole century later.
The circumstances of the concerto’s composition are nearly as heart-wrenching as the concerto itself. After a long compositional hiatus during WWI (“I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us,” he said) Elgar wrote out the first theme during his recovery from a dangerous surgery in the aftermath of the war. Even though the composer lived for fifteen more years, this concerto stands as one of Elgar’s last great works because his wife died within the year that he composed it.
The elegiac nature of the first movement is musically conveyed through several features. The cello concerto – roughly half the length of the violin concerto – exhibits a compact form with powerful, concise themes. The instrumentation is sparse and prefers strings to brass, producing a darker tone. And the opening! Oh, those first few chords! Elgar maximizes the cello’s sonority and, in an unconventional manner, bares the heart of the soloist right from the beginning. As the playwright J.B. Priestly put it, “the man himself… seems to be staring at us out of a sorrowing bewilderment.”
Yes, and is there a greater exemplification of this than in du Pre’s performance?
Many consider du Pre's performance to be the definitive interpretation of this concerto. Viewed today, her performance carries a whole new level of pathos, for her soulful playing was to be cut short by multiple sclerosis only years later.
So what are we to make of this concerto and this performance? Is this concerto a universal elegy for all things sad? Maybe. But, I have to admit that I am rather fond of Diana McVeagh's thoughts on this matter; she hears the piece as being "haunted by an autumnal sadness, but the sadness of compassion, not pessimism."
Yes, sometimes complacency can be the greatest scourge of humanity. Thankfully this concerto helps us to do otherwise: to mourn with those who mourn. Doing so, our joy will be all the greater.