The 2019-20 season’s opening concerts are Maestro Zubin Mehta’s last before his retirement. As a personal tribute to him, a host of stars and close friends of the Maestro and Orchestra are set to perform. In this concert, as part of the closing festivities of the Jubilee celebrations, we hear Elgar’s Violin Concerto, played by Pinchas Zukerman and Beethoven's Symphony no. 7.
Edward Elgar (born in Broadheath, England in 1857; died in Worcester in 1934) is considered to be the English representative of European romantic music of the late 19th century and the most important British composer of his time. Elgar was a "romantic" composer during an era of dramatic changes in musical aesthetics in Europe and was a distinctly English voice at a time when music lovers in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Budapest were inspired by the innovative works of Debussy and Stravinsky; Webern, Schoenberg, and Berg; and Bartok and Kodály.
Elgar's music is rightly considered "English." Although he avoided obvious quotes of folk music, Elgar drew inspiration from the landscapes and culture of England. Musicologist Donald Grout believes that even the melodies characteristic of his music are reminiscent of the intonation of the spoken English language. Perhaps the fact that Elgar was a “man of the people" and remained loyal to his roots added a special musical touch to his work and made it so popular. For many years, he worked in communities of music amateurs who were enthusiastic performers and consumers of music, helping him to understand the field of English music in depth, unlike composers of earlier eras whose musical culture served the upper bourgeoisie, the London nobility, and the Crown.
He began to make a living as an independent musician at an early age. He headed Worcester's Amateur Musicians Society and at the age of sixteen already played violin in the local Philharmonic Orchestra. He then conducted a brass band, played bassoon in a woodwind quintet, taught violin, and became the resident composer for a mental hospital in Powick. During this time, young Elgar was exposed to the musical needs of the peripheral music lover and learned how to create music that spoke to the musical needs in these communities.
His musical path was not easy. The first success of his extensive work came only in 1899 with the completion of Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, commonly known as "Enigma Variations." The work, first performed in London under the direction of Hans Richter, brought Elgar to the attention of the general public, earning him the recognition of prominent musicians in Europe. Even Richard Strauss declared Elgar the most important British composer of his day.
And Strauss wasn't the only one. Well-known European conductors, such as Busoni and Weingartner, were charmed by Elgar’s scores--particularly his orchestral sounds, restraint, and expressive skill. They exposed his music to broad audiences who found it enjoyable and exciting. It was Gustav Mahler who, in 1910, conducted the premiere of "Enigma Variations" in New York, and Arturo Toscanini who recorded them with great success in 1951.
Between 1901 and 1914, Elgar became the most recognized, well-known, and highly regarded composer in Britain. He composed his best works during this time, including his Symphony no. 1 (1908), which was performed over a hundred times in the year following its composition, Symphony no. 2 (1911), and Violin Concerto (1911), written for the virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler. For years, this concerto has been at the center of a debate that has little to do with music, but revolves around the question of whether Elgar sought in this concerto to sketch a portrait of a beloved woman who had charmed him. The conclusion from the gossip-musicological research brought up the name of someone called Alice Stuart-Wortley, who may have gained a hidden eternal life through this piece. It is more important to remember that Elgar was able to create a musical language in this concerto in which folk elements and a direct musical voice were combined, while also dealing with wide-ranging musical forms. One can wonder whether the fact that Elgar wasn't structural pioneer, like Mahler or Ives, came from a historic journey to which he felt obliged. He wrote in popular idioms and composed dozens of short works alongside large-scale works, all of which made use of the skills he developed as a young professional musician and shows his diversity and uniqueness. In all his works, Elgar was able to produce rich and reverberating sounds from the orchestra which give some of his compositions distinct qualities of his predecessor Brahms, and yet, even in the grim and serious moments he composed, he was able to avoid an over-expressiveness that could make his music verge on the ridiculous.
One of the most important impressions of this concerto comes from a letter Elgar himself wrote to a close friend: "(This concerto) is good. Terribly emotional. Maybe even too emotional, but I love it.”
Everything seems to have been said and written about Beethoven's Symphony no. 7, but here are some interesting and lesser-known facts about this wonderful piece:
It is one of Beethoven's works that gained immediate success with the audience and critics as soon as it made its debut, on December 8, 1813, at a concert whose proceeds were donated to the welfare of the soldiers wounded several months earlier at the Battle of Hanau.
The Viennese audience, which was still suffering from the French conquest of the city in 1807 and 1809, was excited by the energy and beauty of the symphony. In one of the many performances after the premiere, newspapers reported that the "applause reached a level of ecstasy."
The “crown jewel” of this work is the second movement. There are known cases when the performers were "forced" to repeat it at the end of the performance, and at one point it was performed as a stand-alone movement.
This (second) movement has consciously influenced a host of composers and compositions. The second movement of Schubert's "Great" Symphony (which is also being performed as part of the festival celebrations), second movement of Schubert's Trio in E-Flat Major, slow movement of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," and more.
Beethoven scholars attribute the “magic spell’ this work puts on audiences to its rhythmic component. The rhythmic dynamism, forward motion, and abundant energies of this symphony successfully compete with elements such as orchestration and melody, which also demonstrate Beethoven's finest talent in this symphony.