A concerto for heart-strings

An Irishman’s Diary about Edward Elgar’s post-war masterpiece

Richard Harwood: following in the steps of Jacqueline du Pré

Richard Harwood: following in the steps of Jacqueline du Pré


After seeing his work performed in Dublin’s Gaiety once, WB Yeats was called on stage by the audience and took the opportunity to lecture them on the need to support a national theatre in Ireland, instead of importing “very vulgar plays” from England.

The show that earned his curtain call was a musical version of Diarmuid and Grania , co-written with George Moore. More surprising, perhaps, is the identity of the man who wrote the music. In no way vulgar, but a quintessentially English import, it was Edward Elgar, then approaching the height of his fame and about to become a “Sir”.

Elgar’s cameo role in the emergence of an Irish national theatre was in 1902, around the same time he wrote his most famous tune, the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 .

This is now better known as Land of Hope and Glory (the lyrics were not his), and as such has become an unofficial English anthem, indispensable to that strange yearly spectacle of musical nationalism: the BBC’s Last Night of The Proms.

But the real-life Edward Elgar was a much more complex person than some of his music might imply. Proudly English, he was also very open to the musical influences of continental Europe, while being a Catholic in a Protestant country, born to humble circumstances and with an education to match, he had to fight a long, sometimes bitter battle to be accepted by the musical establishment.

His greatest commercial success came in the years before the First World War but he fell severely out of fashion after the war, when his music was seen as something from a bygone era.

Elgar was himself deeply depressed about the war and its previously unimaginable levels of destruction. He spent its later years living in West Sussex from where, across the channel, the fighting in France could be heard. Although Land of Hope and Glory was more popular than ever by then, Elgar came to wish it had less jingoistic lyrics.

He wrote little during the war years. But as the conflict ended, he went back to composing with dramatic results. His music was sadder and more contemplative now. And in a late flowering, he produced several major works: none more famous that his Cello Concerto in E Minor : a sort of lament for a lost world. Despite this and other masterpieces, the older Elgar did not regain his former prominence, although his champions included the redoubtable George Bernard Shaw.

In fact, he and Shaw had a mutually beneficial friendship. Shaw couldn’t compose music, although he was a brilliant critic. So he indulged his interest vicariously through Elgar who, being notoriously doubtful of his own talent, thrived on the certainties of which Shaw was never short.

It was Shaw who encouraged him to write another symphony in 1932 and who persuaded the BBC to commission it. Sadly, the work was not completed before Elgar’s death.

The composer remained out of fashion for several decades but from the 1960s on critics started giving his music a second hearing. Central to the revival was the great concerto. And a key figure in promoting it was the brilliant British cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

Du Pré’s version of the masterpiece was so definitive, it’s said that even the great Rostropovich, who had taught her for a time, dropped the piece from his own repertoire after hearing it. But du Pré’s glories were to be cruelly short-lived. A former child prodigy, she was stricken with multiple sclerosis in her 20s and soon had to retire.

Step forward, a generation later, one Richard Harwood, who has been called “the greatest young cello talent since Jacqueline du Pré”, and whose CV has strong echoes of hers. Also English, he started playing the instrument aged five, reached Grade 8 and age eight in the same year and has since continued to be a young cellist in a hurry.

Naturally, his regular repertoire includes Elgar’s famous piece, which he first played on BBC’s Radio 3 at age 13. And Irish music fans can hear both it and him next week, on April 9th, at the National Concert Hall. The event is part of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s Essential Classics Series. More details are at nch.ie

Still on string music, a correction. When I suggested yesterday that the annual Feile Patrick Byrne (www.comhaltas.ie/events/detail/feile_patrick_byrne_2014) had begun already, I was a week ahead of myself. In fact, it starts on April 8th and the concert by We Banjo 3 is on Saturday 12th. Apologies for the confusion.



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