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Composed: 1919

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd=piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and solo cello

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 12, 1968, Zubin Mehta conducting, with Jacqueline du Pré, soloist

About this Piece

Elgar’s name and the Enigma Variations are inextricably bound, but those who think of him as a one-piece composer need only look at his large catalog of compositions in virtually all instrumental and vocal forms to realize the scope of the man’s creativity.

The Cello Concerto of 1919 was the last full-scale orchestral work Elgar was destined to complete. With some deviations from its norm, the Concerto moves from dour to dourer—which I think aptly describes the brief introduction and the main theme that follows.

The four-movement work begins with a short cello passage marked with one of Elgar’s favored performing directives, Nobilmente. This assertive but morose musical gesture, which returns briefly in the second movement and also at the end of the Concerto, contrasts sharply with the austere, long-limbed main theme of the movement proper given by violas alone. Resignation and bitterness seem to mingle here, with only flickering moments of hope entering the autumnal atmosphere.

The first movement is linked to the second by rhapsodic material in the cello that begins with a pizzicato allusion to the first movement’s opening, and then goes on to a perpetual motion, virtuosic course as a Scherzo.

A brief, meditative, and searching slow movement prefaces a finale notable for rich contrasts that include an energetic main theme, an accompa-nied cadenza, and a return of part of the slow movement’s materials as well as that first idea with which the Concerto began. But behold, after all of the deep melancholy that has suffused the work, the ending has about it the kind of bravado that tells much about British fortitude, about the “chin up, carry on” strength of that people. It is a good and a bold stroke.

— Orrin Howard