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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS / ELGAR: Violin Concertos
Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)
Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor. The language and culture of his family was Swedish, but Sibelius himself was to enter wholeheartedly into the world of Finland, with its different linguistic and literary traditions. It was this world that he translated into musical terms in his remarkable seven symphonies and in a series of tone poems that echo the ancient sagas. He was trained as a musician at first in Helsinki, then in Berlin and Vienna, and had early ambitions as a violinist, at a time when the first professional orchestra in Finland was being established. Narrowly failing to win the position of Professor of Music at the University of Helsinki in 1896, he was awarded a government stipend for ten years, converted thereafter info a pension for life. This was never enough to meet his needs, hardly tempered by a certain inherited improvidence. His father had had a gift for extravagance, and had left his family bankrupt at the time of his early death. For the last twenty-seven years of his long life Sibelius virtually ceased to work as a composer. His position was unassailable, but he felt himself out of tune with the contemporary world of music, as it had developed.
Sibelius completed the first version of his Violin Concerto in 1903 and it was first performed in Helsinki with indifferent results. The concerto was revised and successfully performed in Berlin in 1905 by Karl Halir, under the direction of Richard Strauss. The choice of soloist, however, offended the violinist Willy Burmester, who had originally been promised the work. The earlier version of the concerto was technically ambitious, and as a violinist Sibelius had needed no help with the lay-out of the solo part, although this presented technical difficulties that were beyond his own command. The later version made necessary revisions in the solo part and it is in this definitive form that the work has become a standard part of the solo repertoire.
The concerto opens with no lengthy orchestral introduction, the soloist making an almost immediate appearance, accompanied by a Scandinavian mist of muted strings. Although the movement is in the traditional tripartite form, the central development section is replaced by a cadenza-like passage for the violinist. The lyrical slow movement brings a deeply romantic melody, the soloist proceeding to weave his own fantasies above the orchestra. There follows a finale which the composer once described as a danse macabre, providing an opportunity for virtuoso display in a work in which the solo part is generally intertwined with the orchestral texture.
The image of Sir Edward Elgar as an Edwardian gentleman, happier at the race- course or with his dogs than in the concert hall or with musicians is sadly deceptive. Popularly associated with the heyday of British imperialism, through his all too well known Pomp and Circumstance Marches and other occasional celebrations of Empire that have lasted less well, he has seemed the musical epitome of a period in British history that it has become fashionable to decry. The picture is a false one. In Edwardian terms Elgar was a counter-jumper, a man of relatively humble origins, son of a jobbing musician who kept a shop in Worcester, and later the husband of an imprudent if well connected spinster, the daughter of a Major-General in the Indian Army and nine years his senior. As a Catholic in a largely Protestant and strongly prejudiced community, he must seem very much less of an Establishment figure, whatever mask he may have chosen to assume as his fame grew.
Initial recognition was slow in coming. In 1890 the Elgars moved to London, but the following year retreated again to the West Country, taking a house at Malvern, allowing Elgar to return to his earlier activities as a provincial musician, enjoying a merely local reputation. During the last decade of the century he turned his attention largely to the writing of choral works, designed for the flourishing choral societies of his native region and of the North of England. It was the Enigma Variations, completed in 1899, that first established his fame in London and, therefore, nationally. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which followed in 1900, was less successful at its first performance in Birmingham and the publishers, Novello, were not particularly generous in their treatment of mm, although he came to rely on the encouragement of the German-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader for the firm, who found in Elgar's music something much more akin to the music of his own native country.
By 1910, the year of the Violin Concerto, circumstances had changed. Gerontius had become an established part of English choral repertoire: there had been honorary degrees from major universities, a knighthood in 1904, the oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, and in 1908 the first of his two symphonies. Expectation ran high when the Philharmonic Society commissioned a new violin concerto. The work was completed in time for its triumphant first performance at the Queen's Hall in November 1910. It was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, the soloist on this occasion, and inscribed, cryptically, with the words Aqui esta encerrada el alma de.... , the inscription found on a poet's tomb in the picaresque novel Gil Blas by Lesage. This is generally supposed to be a reference to Alice Stuart-Wortley, Elgar's acknowledged inspiration for the work, his Windflower, an affectionate nick-name that distinguished her from his wife Alice. Although Elgar himself was a violinist, he relied for technical assistance on W.H. Reed, the young leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, who played through the work with the composer at the first private hearing in Gloucester, before Kreisler, a soloist at the Gloucester Festival, offered his own private performance of the work.
The concerto opens with a highly characteristic first theme, in its orchestral exposition, moving forward to themes identified with the Windflower. The soloist enters, introducing a second exposition, a reworking of the first material, developed in the central section of the movement, which relies at first on the first subject, before turning to the Windflower second subject, now played maestoso. The first subject opening figure is played in descending sequence by the soloist in introducing the recapitulation of this sonata-form movement.
The slow movement, the part of the concerto that Elgar wrote first, moves from the key of B minor to B flat major. Here the solo violin adds its own element to the ingenuous first theme announced by the orchestra, which also proposes the modal second theme, shifting in key to a mysterious D flat major in music of wonderful lyricism.
The final Allegro molto opens with an introduction of ominous excitement, leading, after ornamental brilliance from the soloist, to the announcement of the first theme, echoed and developed by the soloist. The gently romantic second subject, marked cantabile e vibrato, is introduced by the soloist and this thematic material, and that of the introduction to the movement, re-appear, as the music is developed, leading to an initially accompanied cadenza, into which the orchestra softly intrudes in conclusion.
The final section of the movement echoes the introduction, culminating in a version of the principal theme, in violin triple stopping and marked nobilmente, a favourite direction in Elgar's music, bringing to an affirmative end a major addition to the violin repertoire, a concerto that goes far beyond any merely insular tradition.
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SIBELIUS / ELGAR: Violin Concertos