It's fitting that such an elegaic concerto is the last concerto of our letters. (Sad face!) Edward Elgar composed his cello concerto, Op. 85, in the summer of 1919; it's hard to ignore the fact that he composed the concerto in Sussex, where the previous summer he had heard the thunder of heavy artillery drifting across the English Channel from France.
War and art are such strange and perfect bedfellows. Although the poet Philip Larkin would probably take issue with the expressiveness of Elgar's concerto – he preferred understatement, probably to a fault – I can't help but think of Larkin's poem "MCMXIV," an elegy for the year 1914, the last year untouched by the horror of truly modern warfare. The last stanza of the poem reads:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
I know I keep quoting poetry to talk about music, but what other kind of language can say what I hear? The concerto sounds, at times, like Larkin's valediction: "Never such innocence, / Never before or since / ... / Never such innocence again" (Of course, the whole concerto isn't so elegaic, but I couldn't help but hear these lines in the opening of the Adagio, which is mournful stuff.)
The more I listened to this concerto, the more it gnawed at me. Why do I hear such sadness in this piece, Alberta? Does the cello, with its lower range, have a voice that reaches us in a way other instruments can't? Is it just me? It's possible that it's not just me: all the commenters (yes, I read them) on YouTube seemed to be crying into their keyboards too. I guess it didn't help that we were all watching the Jacqueline du Pré performance.
It's intense stuff: Du Pré drapes her body over her cello (the 1712 Davidov Stradivarius) and her lithe and willowy bowing seems to come almost from the instrument itself, a gravity only she feels. Some players impose themselves on an instrument, it seems – they control it – and others have a conversation with it. (At times it seemed like the Stradivarius swayed before du Pré swayed.) I've never seen a musician listen so intently – to the concerto, her conducter, and the instrument – while playing so expressively. All of this is to say that maybe du Pré is to blame.
In any case, I'm suspicious of my reaction to the Elgar concerto because it's so strong. Am I really hearing the Elgar cello concerto when I feel such heavy sadness? And am I imposing all this stuff about World War I and an instrument and composition that so deeply inspires both the performer and listener?
If it's all projection and sentimentality, tell me why I feel a gravitas that's not my own.
In last week's series of letters, Alberta Barnes and I discussed Mendelssohn's Octet. This week we're tackling Saint-Saens's Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, which, for me, was overwhelming, rangy, and gorgeous. If you need more listening or sheet music recommendations, you can browse our sheet music selection of Mendelssohn here or our sheet music selection of Saint-Saens here. Have a favorite piece you want us to write about? Leave a commment below or send me an email at [email protected].
In honor of Valentine's Day I thought it would be appropriate to write about a great musical love story. Too much is said about Brahms and Clara, so I thought I'd find another couple to write about. Below please enjoy a touching love story from music history: a story of romance, fidelity, and tragedy from the life of Olivier Messiaen, one of my favorite composers.
Valentine's Day is approaching, so let's take this occasion to revisit the violin's passionate side. Many would agree that it can be captivating to hear sweet violin music while you wine and dine, but, as delightful as this may be, the violin may sometimes produce too much of a romantic ambiance for its own good!
SHAR Apprentice Megan Fedor takes delight in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Part of the joy of this piece, she argues, is its specific, musical representation of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
When asked the question, “What sacred music do you find compelling?” my mind instantly goes to Johann Sebastian Bach and his St. Matthew Passion. What makes this work a masterpiece goes back to Bach’s upbringing, understanding and involvement in the church, and his musical genius.
For many, the thought of the violin brings to mind pleasant images of angelic beings gently bowing away upon soft, puffy clouds. The mild expressions of these angels radiate warmth as their long, flowing robes cascade over feathered wings and tiny cherubs. These images are fairly considered, since the violin is often the angelic voice that has sung many a doe-eyed bride down the aisle; the instrument is also well-beloved on pieces such as Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus. The violin has such a tremendous range of expression that it wields an undeniably powerful emotive force. We may even do well to consider the violin as an instrument of the divine. Yet, dare we ignore the violin’s long-time affair with the devil himself? Perhaps this Halloween we should revisit this fiendish historical liaison as a more ghoulish alternative to carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples, or baking pie.