Musical Musings: Cello Concerto in E Minor, by Edward Elgar

Human progress isn't measured by industry. It is measured by the value you place on a life. 
An unimportant life. A life without privilege.

-- The Doctor, "Thin Ice" (2017) S10E03

The early 20th century was a period of global turmoil - perhaps no other event (in the near past) has had as much immediate impact on the social, cultural, martial and economic scale as the First Word War (WW1). The "war to end all wars" shattered the pre-war idealism associated with a rapidly industrializing world, and in some way also paved the way for post-Colonial politics across the globe. Although the Second World War is more prominently displayed as a statistical study for humanity's penchant for self-destruction, WW1 remains indelible in the collective memory to present day. 

The post-war cultural identity was a "loss of innocence," experienced at a societal level. As with most such cases, the responses to a calamity of such proportions were equally fragmented over the entire emotional spectrum - from the cynical prose of Hemingway, to the rise of a Feminist voice, to Modernism and Abstract art (that literally presented a fragmented view of reality), to the various socio-politic revolutions that defined the Roaring Twenties -- WW1 affected every aspect of industry, art and society. But while the cynicism and an overarching frustration with the status-quo became the predominant vehicles of expression, there persisted a few voices, from the earlier generations, that lingered wistfully in the world before the war. 

To me, perhaps no other piece of music post-WW1, captures the changing world-view as clearly and with as much depth as Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor. The piece was written by Elgar as he was recuperating from a particularly risky operation (he was 61) in 1918. There is some evidence to support the claim that Elgar conceived the piece much before WW1, and had some preliminary melodic ideas outlined. I consider that claim an even better support in understanding this piece, which represents a constant interplay between the joy of experience, and the sadness of loss.

Elgar communicates the opening statement via the cello - the predominant voice of this piece. As beautiful as it is haunting, in almost equal measures, the cello assumes the mantle of our guide, our point-of-view through the concerto. The first movement belongs completely to the soloist - Elgar provides a solid base for the cellist to improvise in a recitative fashion - just hear the first couple of minutes from recordings done by different artists (links at the bottom of the page) too see how stark the differences in interpretation could be. I find Jacqueline du Pré's interpretation to be the most intense, closely followed by Yo Yo Ma's technically (and tonally) astounding rendition. Sol Gabetta provides a rich, if slightly unhurried expression, while Anastasia Kobekina performs it in a very contemporary, modern, one might even say - minimalist, fashion. Irrespective of the soloist, one thing is certain, the first movement sets the terms of dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra.

The second and third movements expand this conversation, and it is here that the aforementioned wistful longing for the pre-war era makes its appearance in entirety. The early passages in the second movement pull the listener into the turmoil, the despair, and the utter helplessness of watching the world turn around. The orchestra plays a supporting role in that it does not (or is unable to?) provide an "answer" to the cello. The third movement provides a more measured dialogue, a more restrained evocation from the cello that is complemented by the orchestra. One cannot help but feel the pointers to parallels in our world today. 

The last movement reiterates the theme of the first movement, but the cello is on an equal footing with the orchestra. It is here that the conductor guides the tone of the piece. There are passing images of soldiers marching to their doom, interspersed with the soloist reflecting on the futility of the exercise. The piece closes with a beautifully haunting section with the orchestra essentially playing one long chord over the soloist as we return to the theme of the first movement, building to an explosive finale that lasts less than ten seconds - signifying the abrupt upheaval brought about in the aftermath of WW1.

This concerto serves a reminder to the dark events that our world seems precipitously approaching and we would do well to heed the lessons from our past.


Jacqueline du Pré: 
(with Sir John Barbirolli)
(with Daniel Barenboim)

Yo Yo Ma:

Sol Gabetta: 
(with Stephan Deneve)
(with Mario Venzago)

Anastasia Kobekina: 
(with Alexandre Bloch)