A Human Heart

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To mark the centenary of the completion and premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, cellist Raphael Wallfisch reflects upon the period and circumstances surrounding the work’s creation and subsequent life

The years 1917–19, which saw the end of the Great War, were the last period of intense creativity by Edward Elgar, and it was during this time that he composed his very last major work, the Cello Concerto in E minor (1918–19). This piece, written in an unfamiliar introverted style that was very different from the Elgar that the public had grown to expect and love, received its premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, 100 years ago this month. But although it was subsequently played by many of the finest cellists of the time, including Pablo Casals and Beatrice Harrison, it took many years for it to be widely recognised and loved for the masterpiece that it is – for it to become the most popular concerto for the cello, and the most frequently played.

The early years of the war had seen an increasing burden of pressure, ill health and worry settle on Elgar, which produced in him ever increasing restlessness and a need for escape. This was answered in May 1917, when he and his wife Alice rented Brinkwells, a cottage near Fittleworth in West Sussex. The property was rented from the landscape painter Rex Vicat Cole, who had built a large studio in the garden. Elgar found this studio to be the perfect place to compose, surrounded as he was by many of Cole’s powerful and individualistic paintings. Brinkwells became a haven for the Elgars, and it was here that the composer was inspired in his last great creative surge of composition, after which he completed nothing more of real substance before dying in 1934.

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