Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 9, 1947, with soloist Yehudi Menuhin, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
Elgar’s Violin Concerto stands apart from most other works in the repertoire on at least two counts: it is one of the longest violin and orchestra pieces in the literature, and it is one of the most strikingly personal statements in concerto form. Written in 1910, when Elgar was at the height of his celebrity (he had been knighted in 1904), it was the composer’s third attempt at a violin concerto, two aborted efforts having been made in 1891 and 1901. Apart from its musical content, the work tells much about its creator as a man. The Concerto’s very existence reflects one of Elgar’s dreams – he early yearned to be a virtuoso violinist but abandoned the ambition. On its title page, an unfinished sentence in Spanish displays a continuing penchant for the enigmatic: “Aqui esta encerrada la alma de…” (Here is enshrined the soul of…). And throughout the lengthy piece itself are the clearly distinguishable evidences of a master musician translating into musical language the expressive convolutions of the human spirit – the soul. Whose soul? Unlike the identities in his earlier (1899) Enigma Variations, which were revealed after his death, Elgar’s Concerto secret has apparently gone with him to the grave.
The enshrined soul aside, everything about the Concerto yields itself to observation. Dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, who gave its first performance in 1910, the work contains that admixture of Romantic reticence-cum-breathless expansiveness and striding energy which characterizes Elgar’s music. The composer rather understood himself to be a reflector or a synthesizer as much as an originator, for he once said: “Music is in the air all around you, you just take as much of it as you want.” Taking Schumann, Brahms, Franck, Strauss, and Wagner (one need note in the Concerto only the frequency of the Wagnerian melodic “turns” to realize how potent an influence the mighty German was upon the Englishman) – Elgar then worked a special English incantation on them, and produced in his best compositions music of distinct individuality.
On the strictly compositional level, Elgar, as so many other greater and lesser composers, employed certain procedures to the point of mannerism. Chief among his “footprints” were the sequential repetition of materials, persistent use of square rhythmic patterns, and a reluctance to stop while the stopping was good. But these articles of craft are, in the Concerto, overshadowed by the high level of inspiration – emotional, melodic, orchestral, and soloistic. The writing for the violin covers a comprehensive range of virtuosity and lyric expressiveness, culminating in the last movement’s unique accompanied cadenza, where themes from the first movement are recalled with great effectiveness, their ardor illuminated once again in a most persuasive manner.
— Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.