Distant Strains of Memory

Memory, like tears, seems to be of many kinds, and any farewell can sound a symphony of both. Mournful, painful, melancholic, nostalgic; elegiac, dramatic, cathartic, aesthetic; anguished; sacred or poignant; or perhaps soulful, joyful, transcendent—concert program notes always employ a multitude of descriptors to let us know in which adjective the composer registered his pensiveness. (Perhaps it was with program literature writers in mind that Nietzsche sighed, “I cannot differentiate between tears and music.”) 

Over a hundred years ago, after four years of compositional silence produced by the ongoing shock of the Great War, Sir Edward Elgar emerged from the musical shadows with his Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85. The work was recognized then, as now, as a swan song. In the final catalog of his works, Elgar wrote “Finis. RIP” next to Opus 85. Though he would live another fifteen years after it premiered, he didn’t complete another major piece. He’d been terribly ill, and he’d watched his beloved wife Alice “become mysteriously smaller and more fragile,” while he was writing it. Elgar remembered after, “She seemed to be fading away before one’s very eyes.” Alice died within that year. She’d thought his cello concerto “flawless.” There’s certainly something of an intimate farewell in its melody.

Elgar had also been hearing the mechanical sounds of war for years, and the human sounds of mourning for a quarter million British lads killed, and had known that the Old World and its genteel imperialism was over. Is his Cello Concerto then Elgar’s “war requiem”? Or perhaps, a proper British sendoff for the Grand Old Values? Track the rich, human timbre of the solo cello against the pared-down orchestra as it sings through the opening Adagio (Nobilmente, the score commands), and it seems the concerto is all of these things. Listen further, and you’re drawn into your own memories, and your own farewells, and on to the universal human. George Bernard Shaw avowed that what he found in the Elgar Cello Concerto was “the stigmata of what we call immortality.” 

There is sorrow here. But if we were to parse sorrow just a little, we might find that there are two classes. Sorrow can be pessimistic; sorrow can also be compassionate. The more I experience the Elgar, the more I’m convinced this song is of the compassionate sort, and may, in the end, be about compassion more than sorrow. It feels everything for every living thing. It gives all away with generosity, keeping nothing for itself. In the Concerto, the accompanying woodwinds are high; the low strings are low. Throughout the four movements, square in the middle of the musical texture, is the cello. You never lose its voice. Compassion can be the loneliest for the compassionate. 

Compassion comes from the Latin marriage of com- and patior (past participle, passus), meaning to suffer together with; to have a fellow feeling; an awareness of another’s suffering coupled with the wish to relieve it. But passio is a calque from the Greek sympatheia, and along with the fellow feeling there is a meaningful sense of affection and affinity, and even of the affinity of heavenly bodies to each other. Compassion then is a gravitational and therefore undeniable pull towards suffering through the suffering of others. “I am never merry when I hear sweet music,” Shylock’s daughter Jessica says to her lover Lorenzo. “The reason is, your spirits are attentive,” he replies. “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.”

Du Pré’s uninhibited style of playing catapulted the Elgar Cello Concerto into popular consciousness in an age primed to push against any inhibitions.

Remarkably, the performance history of the Elgar Cello Concerto draws something from the larger dynamic of compassion. Today the Elgar is a staple of the cellist’s repertoire, and beloved, with over forty recordings. But it had a rocky premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra on October 27, 1919. Conductor Albert Coates had spent so much time rehearsing the rest of the program that the orchestra hadn’t really practiced the new concerto. It was basically shelved from audiences. That all changed sixty-six years later, when a former cellist turned conductor (who’d played the Concerto in the orchestra for its first-ever recording, under the baton of Sir Edward himself), John Barbirolli, recorded the piece with a twenty-year-old cellist prodigy named Jacqueline du Pré playing the Davydov Stradavarius. The Concerto has been a rock star in the classical repertoire ever since.

Du Pré played the piece a little like a 1960s rock star, mercurially, with a passion that explodes from the iconic four opening chords to its final three, dancing and tussling with the orchestra, and demanding the full attention of its audience. You are in medias res before you realize that it’s the violas who’ve actually introduced the main theme and that the cantabile of the long bow strokes now marks the cello’s ownership of it. Elgar eschewed the traditional and formal orchestral introduction for his concerto, and that small note of dignified rebellion du Pré uncannily absorbed and redirected in her up bows and down bows, and the barely-controlled impatience they deliver as she lays into the strings, demanding they give up their very soul. There must have been a cloud of rosin dust by the time du Pré went through the famous scalic run to a top E, and after the scampering, scherzo-like moto perpetuo in the main body of the second movement.

The effect is mesmerizing, even without the visuals. Here’s the first Adagio movement with Barbirolli on YouTube. (And here’s the whole Concerto on Spotify.) Note the effect of the cello’s pizzicato as it brings the first movement to a close and opens up the second Lento movement, in its allegro molto phrasing. The relationship with the silence there is pivotal, as it is throughout the third Adagio movement, and du Pré masters its manipulation. NPR thought that there was “always gentleness to the pain, always an edge to the tenderness,” in her rendering of the Elgar under Barbirolli. 

You can see that edge in clips filmed for the 1967 documentary about du Pré by Christopher Nupen. This time her husband Daniel Barenboim conducts du Pré, and her espressivo is on display for all to see (as all should.) That became even more pronounced, and perhaps excessively so, in her 1970 live recording of the Elgar, again with Barenboim, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In her passionate slaps of the bow, and the dynamic range and portentous swellings she achieves with the orchestra, there’s something closer to desperation in her playing. Her intensity radiates, which says something about the way that a single piece of music can take on a new life before every different live audience. But she was already beginning to experience numbness in her hands and arms from the multiple sclerosis that would soon confine her to a wheelchair.

Du Pré’s uninhibited style of playing catapulted the Elgar Cello Concerto into popular consciousness in an age primed to push against any inhibitions. I’m not surprised that I came to the Concerto in high school precisely through the 1970 du Pré recording, and immediately fell in love with it. Nor am I surprised that I once ended up with a speeding ticket while listening to it. (“Ma’am, do you know how fast you were going?” “But sir, have you heard this cello?!” The officer was remarkably understanding, afterward.) But the effect and the overall tone or atmosphere du Pré achieves might be quite different from what Elgar envisioned, whistling the tune with the Malvern Hills in mind. The reason has to do partly with the changing fashion or taste in cello playing throughout the century, tied to the move from thick gut strings to metallic ones. 

In Elgar’s time, cellists were still using gut strings, which produce a richer, warmer sound (rather than the “brighter,” louder sound of metal or synthetic strings), and which affect tone quality and vibrato. Elgar was used to serious cellists employing portamento in their serious playing—a sliding technique creating phrasing, coloring, and expressiveness (think “breath glide”). It can be awkward and schmaltzy on metal strings, and string players have deemed it outside the realm of good taste since the 1940s. Du Pré played on metallic, not gut strings. 

Cellist Steven Isserlis recorded the Elgar with the LSO under Richard Hickox on gut strings, which gives you a sense for what tones Elgar might have had in mind. The cello sound is richer, darker even (though not in the sense of morbid), and because of the gut, the dynamics are more contained. In the third Adagio movement, this emphasizes the middle-of-the-night pensive lyricism of the melody. He savors the cadences, and in the final diminuendo there is a reposeful bidding of an adieu. There is no raging against the dying of the light for Isserlis.

Whether you’re an expert or a novice when it comes to classical music, the way Zander coaches the cellist to new understandings and expressions of notes and emotions he thought he’d mastered will bring you some appreciative insight and no small amount of joy.

Not using gut strings, but along the lines of this warmer and more restrained expression, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber produced a BRIT award-winning recording with Conductor Yehudi Menuhin and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1985. Webber manages a subtle portamento, even with metal strings. Elgar scholar Jerrold Northrop Moore and BBC Music Magazine have described Webber’s as the “finest ever version,” and you can listen to it here on Spotify, preferably on repeat. Menuhin was perhaps the last musician to have a strong connection with Elgar himself: they were close friends and he had performed the Elgar Violin Concerto under Elgar’s baton in 1932. Attuned to the essential gentleness of Elgar’s soul, Menuhin told Webber of the Cello Concerto’s theme: “Play it as if it’s coming from a distance over the hills.” On his deathbed, Elgar had whispered to his friend Sir Barry Jackson about this same theme, “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” 

Over the years, I’ve gravitated to the Webber-Menuhin recording. It’s this interpretation that most consistently seems to keep the arc of Elgar’s “nobilmente” markings in mind. And it returns us to the dynamics of compassion. In the themes of memory and sorrowing, there’s resignation and not an ounce of self-pitying. They’re delicately colored emotions for Elgar, and Webber honors that. Webber, too, is caught by the inherent loneliness at the heart of the Concerto, and engages with it in his playing. 

You can watch Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander coach a young cellist—and a small public audience—through the Concerto’s first movement in one of his popular Saturday morning interpretation classes, exploring all these themes. Whether you’re an expert or a novice when it comes to classical music, the way Zander coaches the cellist to new understandings and expressions of notes and emotions he thought he’d mastered, will bring you some appreciative insight and no small amount of joy. And not just about the art of music.

Commemorating the Concerto’s 100th anniversary in 2019, Webber remarked: “There are no traditional ‘fireworks’ on display, no showy cadenzas; instead lies the ultimate challenge of conveying to an audience one man’s wounded interpretation of the human condition as viewed through the passage of time.” It’s a comment reminiscent of a reflection in J. B. Priestly’s 1948 play The Linden Tree, in which the Elgar Cello Concerto nearly figures as a character. In the play, the aging history professor Robert Linden hears his daughter practicing the Concerto. While he’s struggling to respond to externally-applied pressure to retire, the professor reflects that in the wake of the destruction of World War I, Elgar, looking backwards at what no longer can be, “distils his tenderness and regret, drop by drop, and seals the sweet melancholy in a Concerto for cello. And he goes, too, where all the old green sunny days and the twinkling nights went—gone, gone.” 

But that nostalgia is not the end of the story. Linden observes that his young daughter, “who knows and cares nothing about Bavaria in the nineties or the secure and golden Edwardian afternoon, here in Burmanley, this very afternoon—unseals for us the precious distillation, uncovers the tenderness and regret, which are ours as well as his, and our lives and Elgar’s, Burmanley today and the Malvern Hills in a lost sunlight, are all magically intertwined.”