The three-movement Violin Concerto, Op. 61 in B minor is one of the most repertoire works written for this instrument. The violin was Elgar’s own instrument and his Violin Concerto is almost like a personal confession. True to the enigma, the Spanish inscription he wrote opposite the title-page – Aquí está encerrada el alma de . . . . . (‘Here is enshrined the soul of . . . . .’) – putting five dots instead of three. Elgar even deliberately provokes conjecture about the owner of the “soul of?” by continuing what he wrote in a letter – “Now guess”. The most popular solution is that the soul belonged to Alice (five letters, corresponding to the five dots) Stuart-Wortley, a family friend for whom Elgar invented the name ‘Windflower’ (a wood anemone, one of the first signs of spring), to avoid confusion with his wife’s name, also Alice. But it is more likely to be his own soul that is enshrined “here”. Having Windflower also describes some lyrical themes in the first movement.
The work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1909.
In fact, the idea of writing a violin concerto goes back a long way, to the 1890s, when Elgar began work on such a work but, dissatisfied, destroyed the manuscript. The first sketches of the B minor Concerto Op. 61 date from 1905, after Elgar was inspired by a statement by the violinist Fritz Kreisler, who described him as “the greatest living composer”. In an interview published in an English newspaper, the admiring 30-year-old Kreisler shared extremely flattering thoughts about Elgar’s music: “If you want to know whom I consider the greatest living composer, I would say with no hesitation Elgar… I say this not to please anyone, it is my own conviction… I place him on a par with my idols Beethoven and Brahms. He is of the same aristocratic lineage. His creation, his orchestration, his harmony, his grandeur, everything is wonderful. Plus it’s all pure, uninfluenced music. I wish Elgar would write something for violin.”
The composer focused on the Concerto in 1909 and 1910. He dedicated it to the great violinist.
The work was a favourite of Elgar’s and he conducted its premiere at the opening of the 99th season of the Royal Philharmonic Society on 10 November 1910 at the Queen’s Hall in London, with Fritz Kreisler as soloist of the London Symphony Orchestra. The reception was extraordinary, with contemporary reviews describing the concerto as being ‘artistic in the highest sense of the term’. Elgar’s concerto immediately became popular. It has a place in concert programmes even when there is no interest in his works.
However, plans for His Master’s Voice record company to record the work with Kreisler and Elgar fell through. The first recording of the concert was an abridged version made by the Gramophone Company under the HMV label in December 1916. The soloist is violinist Marie Hall, the orchestra is not mentioned. The first full recording is from 1929 for Columbia, the soloist is Albert Sammons. In 1932 the composer made a recording with the young Yehudi Menuhin, whom he “considered to be very reliable”.
The concerto is a world away from the optimistic grandeur of his marches or the flamboyance of Symphony No. 1. Rather, it is closer to the Enigma Variations. This is noticeable from the outset with the harmonic ambiguity of its underlying minor tonality. The tenderness of the second theme, the slow movement and the cadenza in the finale evocatively foreshadow his works written around the First World War, including his Piano Quintet, Op. 84 and the famous Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85.
The first movement (Allegro) is in traditional sonata form, opening with a long orchestral introduction in which all the themes are heard. The opening theme (one of the ones first recorded in 1905) is romantically expressive, and is followed by two more lyrical themes (Windflower), with a tender clarinet solo at the beginning of the second. At the very beginning of the score, the composer noted that the music should sound nobilmente (noble), and further on – cantabile (songful), appassionato (passionate) and so on. The violin part repeats the themes. The second theme stands out with particular poetic beauty. The movement ends with an extended orchestral texture. The orchestral prelude to the second movement (Andante) is shorter, mostly hushed and songful, but gradually builds to a passionate climax. The last movement (Allegro molto) begins in quiet dynamics, this time with a tense virtuosic passage for violin and orchestra; themes from the first and second movements are heard. The violin cadenza is unconventional and, though difficult to play, it is not the soloist’s usual virtuoso performance. It is intended as an emotional and dramatic climax to the whole work. It is followed again by the themes from all the movements. The concerto ends with a brilliant orchestral finale.