Blog photo courtesy of the Tully Potter Collection.
This blog is a continuation of a multi-part series. Revisit Part 1 here.
The original article first appeared in the Elgar Society Journal.
The fiasco that never was
Just how much of a disaster was the premiere? Let us review some of the salient points, starting with the soloist. All those who knew him were agreed that Felix Salmond had a phenomenal memory, so there is every probability that he knew the cello part intimately by the time he arrived at Queen’s Hall. As the son of a singer, he had early imbibed the virtues of a singing line and good breath control. As a virtuoso he was no Feuermann or Piatigorsky but the few discs which document him in fast-moving music show that he could move around the cello very niftily, and he had a fine trill. On his records we hear a lovely, supple legato and a well developed bowing technique. His portamento is tastefully executed. His tone, the very embodiment of Elgar’s favourite word nobilmente, seems ample and capable of many degrees of shading. The vibrato is varied, rarely becoming too wide. On the negative side, we know from Lady Elgar’s diary that he was very nervous, and he had only recently exchanged his Giuseppe Guarneri “Filius Andreae” cello for the ex-Paganini, ex-Piatti 1700 Matteo Goffriller which he would use for the rest of his career. It is possible that he and the Goffriller had not yet achieved complete cohesion. Like another tall, gentlemanly Elgarian, the tenor Gervase Elwes, Salmond could come across as rather reserved. At other times, he could sound a bit wooden. Elgar himself was not the sort of virtuoso conductor who might be able to keep an under-rehearsed orchestra on track, but he was a sterling exponent of his own music, as we know from his records. As for the LSO, even in those days London orchestral players prided themselves on their sight-reading abilities, so there is every probability that the musicians muddled through quite well.
Now for the Harbingers of Doom. It seems to me that they were all people who had inside knowledge of the fact that Elgar and the orchestra had been allowed inadequate time for preparation: Sir Edward and Lady Elgar, Felix Salmond and the young John Barbirolli, who was playing in the LSO cello section. In the history of musical performance one finds countless occasions when those involved thought that they were participating in an absolute fiasco, while everyone else enjoyed their efforts.
Alfred Kalisch, a critic friendly with Elgar and likely to be “in the know,” wrote that the Concerto “was obviously under-rehearsed” but felt Salmond “undoubtedly enhanced his reputation very greatly in spite of the adverse circumstances under which he labored” (Musical Times, 1 December 1919). Significantly, only one scribe gave the performance an absolute stinker of a review. This was Ernest Newman, whose critique has often been quoted. Let us read it at greater length (he began with praise for Coates’s conducting of Le Poème de l’Extase):
“It went a long way towards compensating us for our disappointment over the new Elgar ’cello concerto—a disappointment not with the work but with the presentation of it. One never expects a first performance to be an ideal one, and Mr. Felix Salmond, admirable artist as he is, may well be forgiven for feeling, and showing, the responsibility laid upon him. But we should like to have an explanation of the failure of the orchestra. There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever be the explanation, the sad fact remains that never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra made so lamentable a public exhibition of itself. Like all Elgar’s recent work, the ’cello concerto is of a deceptively simple texture; but precisely because Elgar does without every note that is not really necessary the utmost and the right value must be given to the notes that remain. In few concertos, I should think, does the solo instrument play so continuously as this. That means that the usual orchestral outbursts of tone between the solo passages are barred to the composer. The orchestration has to be of the sort that will allow the solo instrument to be heard always; and as the ’cello tone, from the mere nature of its range and timbre, is so easily covered up by an orchestra, a quite special scale of colour is required in the accompanying parts. This scale of colour it has obviously been Elgar’s preoccupation to achieve. Some of the colour is meant to be no more than a vague wash against which the solo ’cello defines itself. On Monday the orchestra was often virtually inaudible, and when just audible was merely a muddle. No one seemed to have any idea of what it was the composer wanted. The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple—that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar’s music in the last couple of years—but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity. As in his late chamber music, he makes no attempt to be modern for mere modernity’s sake. He has a language, an instrument, of his own of which he is fully master; and he tranquilly uses them for the realisation in tone of a fine spirit’s lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of earth” (The Observer, 2 November 1919)
Note that Newman had heard rumours of inadequate rehearsal; he was therefore primed to find fault. Like the other Harbingers of Doom, he was a member of the Elgar circle—he and his wife were in the party when the composer and W.H. Reed’s British Quartet played the chamber works in Frank Schuster’s riverside retreat The Hut at Bray-on-Thames earlier that year. His review, honest and sensitive according to his own lights, makes a vivid contrast with that in The Times, which bears all the hallmarks of having been written by the chief music critic, H.C. Colles. Like Newman, Colles has clearly studied the score before the concert. He gives a careful and absorbing analysis of the Concerto, but says not a word about the orchestral performance, adding: “Both the composer and Mr Salmond, throughout a painstaking and sympathetic interpreter, were recalled many times at the end” (The Times, 28 October 1919). The London correspondent of the Yorkshire Post is another who has patently done his homework. He too gives a detailed analysis of the work, concluding:
“The general impression left by the Concerto is that the music expresses with peculiar truth the character of the cello. It is essentially a cello concerto. Another point is the consummate skill with which the timbre of the solo instrument is balanced by the orchestral tone colours. The solo part is an integral part of the scoring, but it is never overwhelmed by the other instruments. It is essentially intellectual, rational music, of dignity and serious sentiment, which makes the hearer think. The solo part was played finely by Mr Felix Salmond, who seemed to have mastered thoroughly the spirit, as well as the executive demands, of the work. The composer conducted, and the reception was enthusiastic” (Yorkshire Post, 28 October 1919).
Note that this critic gained precisely those impressions of the Concerto which Newman alleged were lacking in the performance.
Also at the premiere was the outstanding writer Marion Scott, whose review appeared in a perhaps unexpected American publication:
A New Elgar Cello Concerto
The first concert this season of the London Symphony Orchestra took place at Queen’s Hall on October 27. It was rendered remarkable by two events – the production of Sir Edward Elgar’s new concerto for violoncello, and the conducting of Mr. Albert Coates. Musicians had marked the program beforehand as one of the most interesting this autumn: when the evening came, an audience representative of every branch of the profession streamed into Queen’s Hall, and their expectations were not belied. The concert was interesting – extraordinarily so: it still further enhanced Mr. Coates’ renown as a conductor, and if the new concerto did not carry Elgar beyond the heights he has already achieved as a composer, it at least did not fall below the elevation of thought he has taught us to hope for.
Borodin’s ‘Heroic Symphony’ in B minor stood first on the program, a work of which the great Russian critic Stassov said: ‘It owes its strength chiefly to the national character of its subject,’ and as one listened, one could well believe that Borodin was ‘a national poet of Russia in the highest sense.’ The rendering of the symphony under Mr. Coates left nothing to be desired: it was spacious, masterful, glowing with color, and absolutely authoritative.
In the Place of Honor
Second on the program, in the place of honor, came Sir Edward Elgar’s new concerto for violoncello and orchestra. He himself conducted, and Mr. Felix Salmond played the solo part with rare finish, refinement of style, and consistency of characterization. It was more like the performance of some actor who completely merges himself in the part he plays than a virtuoso coming before an audience to exhibit his own abilities.
This new concerto is too big a work to analyze or appraise quickly. The most that can be done after a single hearing is to record the salient impressions received. Prominent among these is the one that Elgar’s conception of concerto form is totally different to that of the majority of composers. With him a concerto is not a public oration, nor a pyrotechnic display, but a psychological poem. It was so in his violin concerto; it is so in this. He feels the solo instrument to be as much a person as Browning felt his characters to be real in the ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics,’ and exactly as the characters speak for themselves – unfolding their ideas through his poems – so does the concerto deal with a subjective drama, the solo instrument expressing a sensitive, intimate train of thoughts in the language of music. This necessitates a wholly different attitude in soloist, orchestra, and audience from that usually taken toward a concerto, and while Mr. Salmond understood and acted upon it perfectly, one had a sense that the London Symphony Orchestra only partially apprehended their role in this work, fine as they are and well though they played.
The concerto had been contemplated by Elgar for some time before he wrote it in the summer of this year, and he bestowed special care on the balance of tone between the ’cello and orchestra. He has solved the problem with singular success. The solo instrument is never entangled nor swamped by the accompaniment, and there is a lucent quality in the orchestration which removes all justification for a coarse or showy tone on the part of the ‘cellist.
The Scheme of the Work
The work is in four rather short movements, well contrasted, and it opens with an introduction (recitativo), which leads to the first movement proper. This in turn is joined to the scherzo by a bridge-passage of unusual interest and beauty, music that compels one to follow it with close and expectant attention wheresoever it may lead. But on arrival at the scherzo, interest flags, for the scherzo itself is the least satisfactory movement of the four. Though it is sparkling and graceful, it approximates to the type of a ‘Moto Perpetual.’ However, the lyrical adagio which follows is pure ‘Elgar,’ and the finale (allegro non troppo) is the best and most strongly designed movement in the work, binding the whole thing together. This is largely due to a remarkable passage near the end, in which the solo instrument seems to review the concerto as Abt Vogler did his extemporization in Browning’s  poem:
…and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep.
Wagner’s ‘Waldweben,’ next on the program, came as a restful interlude after so much that was unfamiliar. It received a fine performance under Mr. Coates, but the climax of the evening lay in what followed – Scriabine’s ‘Poème de l’Extase.’ This splendid work, so large that it lies on the borderline between a symphony and a symphonic poem, expresses some of its composer’s profoundest conclusions, and while all music lovers may appreciate its beauty and intensity, it must always make a special appeal to composers, for in it Scriabine endeavors to convey the joy of the artist in the shaping of his work. The sequence of ideas and emotions, the harmonic methods and the orchestral structure of the ‘Poème de l’Extase’ are extremely complex, but in Mr. Coates’ hands they became lucid and eloquent. The music seemed lambent with meaning, the audience caught the glow and were swept on to such a fervor of enthusiasm that they clapped and cheered long after it was over, recalling Albert Coates to the platform again and again” (Christian Science Monitor, 13 December 1919).
It will be seen that Scott thought the members of the LSO played well, although she felt they did not fully apprehend the scope of what they were playing. She also thought Felix Salmond showed a complete comprehension of the new kind of concerto that Elgar had composed. Indeed she went out of her way to praise his performance.
(Incidentally, a decade later the premiere of the other great English string concerto of the era, Walton’s Viola Concerto, was also under-rehearsed. No one seems to have complained particularly bitterly on that occasion, even if some people had doubts about Paul Hindemith’s solo playing.)
It seems clear to me that the “disaster” or “fiasco” element of the Elgar premiere—if it ever existed—has been blown up out of all proportion, and that the work received, if not a brilliant rendering, at least an adequate one, which greatly pleased the vast majority of the audience. The negative impression which entered the history books was the result of a few insiders being overly concerned and sensitive about Elgar’s reputation.
A TISSUE OF UNTRUTHS
But the mythmakers did not rest there. Somehow an elaborate structure of supposition, nonsense and pure invention has been built around poor Felix Salmond. In article after article, book after book, you can read the following (with variations according to a particular author’s whim or fancy): that after the première Salmond never played the Concerto again in this country; that he was so ashamed of his failure that he emigrated to the United States with his tail between his legs; and that he never taught or played the Concerto in America. All wrong, wrong, wrong…
When he got home after the performance, Elgar wrote to the orchestra to thank them for their performance and to Salmond in gratitude for his contribution. This letter has not come to light, so we do not know if he mentioned the rehearsal issue, but we do have the reply which the cellist sat down to write at 11.00 p.m. on the 28th:
It is quite impossible to tell you how very deeply your wonderful letter has touched me. I can only thank you from my heart for the great honour you bestowed upon me, &, above all, for the expression of your friendship which I shall proudly cherish. I cannot say anything more, but I am certain you will understand what a joy your letter is to me.
Believe me, your affectionate friend,
The Cello Concerto was never going to be a riproaring success from day one. For many years it was seen as Elgar’s rather depressed response to the Great War, which had swept away the Edwardian world of his heyday, a world dominated by the certainties of the British Empire. The writer J.B. Priestley, who used the music so poignantly in his 1947 play The Linden Tree, certainly saw it that way. And Elgar’s cryptic explanation of the work as ‘a man’s attitude to life’ was interpreted as substantiating the gloomy view, even though he had said similar things about other works. (Only in the past six decades have performances by such interpreters as Jacqueline du Pré and Paul Tortelier—building on the bridgehead established by Pablo Casals, whose interpretation was considered un-English in the 1930s—shown us that the work is by no means irredeemably melancholy. Perhaps it needed cellists of their lavish endowments and powerful personalities to take it firmly on to the world stage.)
The story continues here in Part 3.
TULLY POTTER was born in Edinburgh in 1942 but spent his formative years in South Africa. He is interested in performance practice as revealed in historic recordings and has written for many international musical journals, notably The Strad. For 11 years he edited the quarterly magazine Classic Record Collector. His two-volume biography of Adolf Busch was published in 2010 and he is preparing a book on the great quartet ensembles.