Edward Elgar's Post-War Concerto of Conviction

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Steven Isserlis i

Steven Isserlis plays a 1730 Stradivarius and writes kid's books about the classics. Tom Miller hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Miller
Steven Isserlis

Steven Isserlis plays a 1730 Stradivarius and writes kid's books about the classics.

Tom Miller
Peter Oundjian

Peter Oundjian, who conducts this performance, was a member of the Tokyo String Quartet before he took up the baton. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra hide caption

itoggle caption Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Isserlis Encore

Hear Isserlis with pianist Ana-Maria Vera, in recital at the 92nd Street Y, in New York.

"I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us." English composer Edward Elgar wrote that to a friend during the dark days of World War I. He was living in a small cottage in Sussex. On quiet nights, he could hear the dull thud of artillery from across the Channel.

Elgar composed almost no music during the war. But in the immediate aftermath, he wrote what's come to be considered almost a requiem—his Cello Concerto. At the time, his beloved wife Alice had succumbed to the illness that would eventually take her life.

Elgar himself didn't directly connect these events to the music, but they must have had an effect. The concerto is perhaps Elgar's most searching and austere meditation, lean and sometimes even angry. It turned out to be his last major composition.

The Charitable Cellist

Cellist Steven Isserlis is one of those musicians who always seems to be doing five things at once. When he's not touring the world with his 1730 Stradivarius cello, playing concerts for knowledgeable adults, one might find him preoccupied with teaching kids about the classics.

Isserlis loves performing for children and he's published two kid's books about the lives of the great composers, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, and Why Handel Wagged His Wig.

Isserlis has edited several collections of music for the cello. He also arranges and composes music for his instrument. And, when he finds time for something beside music, Isserlis confesses to passions for Marx Brothers movies and children's literature.

He plays the straight ahead repertoire, like Elgar's concerto and the Bach Cello Suites (newly recorded for the Hyperion label), but his other passion is hunting up repertoire that others haven't paid much attention to from the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsinsadze to rare pieces by Mendelssohn.

He is devoted to the music of Robert Schumann music, and has been awarded a special prize from the city of Zwickau, Schumann's birthplace. In 1998, Isserlis was named Commander of the British Empire, recognizing his services to music.

An Orchestra for New Jersey

It was 1922. The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated; Sinclair Lewis published his classic book Babbitt, and near Newark, a small group of dedicated musicians formed that would eventually become the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

There would be many milestones to come for the orchestra, including hosting Pavarotti's American debut in 1972, a Grammy Award in 2001, and the U.S. and world premieres of many new pieces.

Guest conductor Peter Oundjian leads this performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark.

Elgar, Misunderstood Man of 'Hope and Glory'

Edward Elgar

The composer at his desk at Severn House in Hampstead. hide caption

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Enigmatic Elgar

One of the most celebrated musical riddles is Elgar's Enigma Variations. It's a set of variations on a mysterious theme that never appears. On American Public Media's Performance Today, one listener thinks he's solved the puzzle.

The classical music world loves to celebrate big, round-numbered birthdays. Last year it was the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.

This year—June 2nd to be exact—there's another such birthday. Edward Elgar was born 150 years ago in the west of England. He's no Mozart. In fact, he doesn't even come close to a top-10 list of all-time great composers, and there won't be much hoopla over the anniversary in this country.

After all, over here, we know Elgar almost exclusively for writing a little marching tune that gets trotted out about this time of year when students graduate. It's from Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1." (audio)

But in England, Elgar still means something, though assessing his worth can be complicated. In some ways, Elgar embodies all that's good and bad about being British. The little ditty we use here to dish out diplomas means something very different to people across the pond.

When you add the words to the trio section of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1," you get the song "Land of Hope and Glory," (audio) an unofficial British national anthem. In this country, it would be as if Aaron Copland had written "America the Beautiful."

Elgar's music is a source of pride for many Brits. He came along at a time when the country had endured a long dry spell between great composers. When Elgar was born, in 1857, Henry Purcell, considered the last significant English composer, had already been dead for 162 years. Some Brits say when Elgar arrived, he put the 'Great' back into Britain.

Even though his style was an amalgam of Germanic influences, somehow Elgar managed to write music that was British to the core. There's grace and elegance and some charm. His music pleased both audiences and most critics.

But some Elgar skeptics have seen the composer and his music as a soundtrack to the stuffy Edwardian era. Elgar himself, dressed in tweed with his big walrus mustache, looked like the very cartoon figure of Colonel Blimp, a satire of everything stereotypically British, from pompous patriotism to the strict class system.

Elgar's music, too, can be seen as too big and too puffed up. The "Violin Concerto" lasts nearly a full hour, and his two symphonies are each almost that bloated.

Although Elgar wrote the "Pomp and Circumstance" marches he was not a very pompous man and nothing at all like Colonel Blimp. He was the son of a piano tuner, who had no formal music education. He soaked up all he could by hanging around his father's music shop. Later he conducted a small ensemble at the "County Lunatic Asylum at Powick."

It's not hard to find the "pomp" in Elgar's music, but as musicians are quick to point out, there are plenty of darker tones mixed in. Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber says the "Cello Concerto" is "an intensely personal, lonely statement."

Anthony Payne, who reconstructed Elgar's unfinished Third Symphony, sees the composer's personality peak through in the Symphony No. 2. "One of the things that appeals to me is the melancholy mixed with rhythmic verve," Payne says. "A lot of people think Elgar is this confident, robust personality, but that's only on the surface. Underneath there's always this melancholy."

Elgar was a composer who, despite self doubt and meager means, worked hard to fulfill his dream. It's a dream many people can relate to, whether or not they're from the 'Land of Hope and Glory.'

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