I am off to Manchester today for a concert at the Bridgewater Hall where, tonight, the brilliant and honey-toned young Danish violinist Nicolaj Znaider plays Elgar’s passionate Violin Concerto in its 100th anniversary year as part of his world tour performing the piece on the 18th century Guarneri violin that the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler used at the world premiere in London’s Queen’s Hall on 10th November 1910.
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
I have loved the piece since I first heard an old recording conducted by Elgar with the teenage Yehudi Menuhin playing the violin when he was probably my own age and I have always identified with its youthful intensity. I have always associated it with the kind of passion and emotion that the usual images of the great English composer appear to contradict. He was a shy man of extreme sensitivity and high emotion which, I think, is captured better in the picture below than in the images of the old “Land of Hope and Glory” composer that have misled so many people in their appreciation of his greatest music.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
The Violin Concerto has always been the subject of a dispute – who is the work’s mysterious dedicatee? On the score, Elgar wrote a dedication in Spanish which can be translated as “Herein is enshrined the soul of ………..” He leaves out the name and merely supplies a secretive set of dots. There are a number of candidates but no one thinks he was thinking of his wife. Most people now believe that he was referring to the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais, a well-to-do and beautiful married woman called Alice Stuart-Wortley. They were certainly friends but, if the music is anything to go by, it was a lot more than a platonic friendship.
Alice Stuart-Wortley (1862-1936)
I have been playing around with some traditional poetic forms recently and decided to try my hand at some Elizabethan sonnets. Here, with all suitable apologies, is my humble offering – a celebration of the concerto’s centenary but also of what I suspect was a great but secret love affair:
Sonnet on the one hundredth anniversary of Elgar’s Violin Concerto
“Herein is enshrined the soul of” someone
(you wrote her name as a series of dots)
it’s one hundred years since that deed was done
for the veiled woman you never forgot.
Your musical dots were safer to write.
Passion, expressed in quavers and crotchets,
freed a shy spirit to soar in delight
lit by a love that had to be secret.
Enshrining her soul, you revealed your heart
and a carnal urge too thrilling to hide.
This lovers’ concerto, right from the start,
dares to rejoice in what custom decried.
Your violin is much braver than you,
it has shown the world what you kept from view.
I can’t play you Nicolaj Znaider’s version of the concerto, even though he has made a wonderfully romantic recording of it but here is that old Elgar-Menuhin performance made in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in 1932. Meanwhile, I am off for a musical treat that I have been looking forward to all year.