Accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, regarded as one of the most talented cellists of the second half of the twentieth century, Jacqueline du Pré performs Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. Conductor: Sir John Barbirolli. Du Pré’s interpretation of the work, recorded in 1965, has been described as “definitive” and “legendary”.

Accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, regarded as one of the most talented cellists of the second half of the twentieth century, Jacqueline du Pré performs Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. Conductor: Sir John Barbirolli.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Elgar composed his Cello concerto in the aftermath of the First World War, and the work quickly became a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. It is also the English composer’s last notable work.

The concerto had its première on 27 October with the London Symphony Orchestra at Queen’s Hall. There’s an interesting footnote to that first performance. One of the players that evening was a promising, nineteen-year-old musician named John Barbirolli. Some sixty-six years later, his recording of the work with Jacqueline du Pré and a later London Symphony (the video above) would be hailed by many as its definitive interpretation.

The work is scored for solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.


  1. Adagio – Moderato
  2. Lento – Allegro molto
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non-troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio

1. Adagio – Moderato

Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire and a significant work in classical music. Composed in the aftermath of World War I, the piece is often viewed as Elgar’s reflection on a world irrevocably changed by the conflict. The concerto’s first movement, marked “Adagio – Moderato,” serves as an emotional and thematic introduction to the entire piece, encapsulating the range of feelings and musical ideas that will be developed throughout the concerto.

The movement opens with a profound, almost somber recitative by the solo cello. This brief passage immediately establishes a tone of introspection and nostalgia, setting the stage for the themes that will follow. The orchestra then joins in, introducing the main thematic material of the movement. As the music progresses, the relationship between the solo cello and the orchestra is one of dialogue rather than competition, contributing to the cohesive nature of the piece.

The first movement is constructed in a modified sonata form, which is a common structural framework in classical music. In this form, themes are presented, developed, and then recapitulated. Elgar deviates from the traditional sonata form by intermingling his themes more freely and incorporating the introductory recitative material into various parts of the movement, making it a recurring motif.

The harmonic language is lush but also tinged with a sense of melancholy, utilizing the key of E minor to great effect. Elgar’s orchestration skills are on full display here; he crafts a rich tapestry of sound that complements the cello’s timbre beautifully. The cello line itself is highly expressive, requiring a performer with not just technical skill but also a deep sense of musicality to fully realize the emotional scope of the piece.

While the first movement may not have the flashy virtuosity of some other cello concertos, its depth and subtlety offer a different kind of challenge to the performer. It calls for a nuanced understanding of phrasing, dynamics, and timing to bring out the complexities embedded in the music.

The Elgar Cello Concerto, and its first movement in particular, has been interpreted by many renowned cellists such as Jacqueline du Pré, whose 1965 recording is often considered a benchmark. This work remains a favorite among both performers and audiences, and it continues to be studied, performed, and recorded extensively.

2. Lento – Allegro molto

The second movement of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, is marked “Lento – Allegro molto.” This section offers a contrasting character to the first movement, providing both rhythmic vitality and an opportunity for virtuosic display. Whereas the first movement carries a mood of introspection and lament, the second is generally more spirited and animated.

The movement starts with a Lento introduction that acts almost like a bridge from the closing of the first movement. It’s a short but potent segment that adds continuity to the concerto. The mood quickly shifts as the Allegro molto section bursts forth, immediately invigorating the musical landscape. One notable aspect of this part is its dance-like, almost scherzo-like quality. A scherzo is a musical term often used to describe a brisk and light-hearted movement, typically the third in a four-movement work, but Elgar ingeniously integrates this into the second movement instead.

The rhythmic aspects are particularly engaging. Elgar employs a variety of rhythmic patterns that demand both technical agility and interpretative skill from the cellist. The orchestration is lighter than in the first movement but still complex, providing a pulsating backdrop against which the solo cello shines. Interestingly, the orchestral texture often mimics the cellistic techniques, which makes for a cohesive and integrated sound palette.

Thematically, the second movement is less overtly melodic compared to the first, focusing more on rhythmic motifs and brief melodic fragments. This creates a sense of propulsion, driving the music forward. The cello part requires a considerable display of virtuosity, including rapid string crossings, extensive use of the instrument’s higher register, and complex fingerings. All of these technical elements serve the greater musical narrative and are not merely showy additions.

As the movement draws to a close, it generally leads without pause into the third movement, creating a sense of continuity that is essential to the overall structure and impact of the concerto. Unlike some concertos where each movement could almost stand alone, Elgar’s four movements are tightly interwoven, each contributing to a greater emotional and thematic whole.

Interpreting the second movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto requires not only technical proficiency but also an understanding of its place within the larger work. This movement is both a contrast to and a continuation of the thematic and emotional materials introduced in the first movement and as such, it plays a crucial role in the overall architecture and success of the concerto.

3. Adagio

The third movement of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, is marked “Adagio.” This movement serves as an emotional core of the concerto, delving deep into a realm of introspection, melancholy, and nostalgia. It is shorter compared to the other movements but is no less significant in its impact. The movement functions as a sort of emotional respite, but it is a complex one, filled with a sense of yearning and even lament.

The music opens with a delicate and highly expressive melody played by the solo cello. This theme is almost song-like in its simplicity but is imbued with profound emotional weight. Here, Elgar strips away much of the orchestral texture found in previous movements to create a more intimate soundscape. This sparse orchestration allows the cello to stand prominently, making each note resonate with heightened emotional clarity.

The thematic material is less varied than in the earlier movements, giving the music a focused, almost meditative character. The harmonic language is rich and complex, but it also has a sense of restraint, adding to the overall poignancy of the movement. Elgar exploits the cello’s timbral qualities masterfully here, using the instrument’s capacity for lush, deep tones to convey a sense of longing.

There is a reflective quality to the music, as if looking back on past experiences or memories. Given that Elgar composed this concerto in the aftermath of World War I and during a time when he was facing health issues and a changing musical landscape, it’s tempting to view this movement as a personal emotional statement. While the music is clearly steeped in emotion, it avoids becoming overly sentimental, striking a balance that makes it universally affecting.

Although the technical demands on the cellist are less intense than in the second movement, the Adagio presents its own set of challenges. The performer must employ a wide range of expressive techniques, from subtle changes in bow pressure to precise control of vibrato, to fully realize the emotional nuances Elgar has embedded in the score.

As the movement draws to a close, it doesn’t offer a resolution or sense of closure; instead, it seems to lead naturally into the final movement, much like how the second movement connects to the third. This structural choice reinforces the perception of the concerto as an integrated, cohesive work, where each movement contributes to a larger emotional and narrative arc.

4. Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non-troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio

The finale of Elgar’s Cello Concerto is marked “Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non troppo.” This movement serves as the culmination of the concerto, both thematically and emotionally. It brings together elements from the previous movements, creating a synthesis that allows for a compelling conclusion. Though the movement is marked by its initial vitality and rhythmic energy, it is not without its share of introspection, and it provides moments of lyrical beauty that echo the earlier movements.

The opening Allegro section is imbued with a sense of urgency, featuring rapid passages and lively rhythms. It’s as if the music is trying to break free from the emotional weight of the earlier movements. The solo cello engages in intricate dialogues with the orchestra, and there’s a level of virtuosity required here that complements the movement’s energetic mood.

As the movement progresses, it arrives at a Moderato section, where the music takes on a more reflective character. Here, Elgar reprises themes from the earlier movements, tying together the musical and emotional threads of the concerto. This section can be seen as a moment of introspection before the final push to the concerto’s conclusion. The reappearance of earlier themes gives the listener a sense of coming full circle, and it also provides an opportunity for the soloist to revisit these themes with the emotional and thematic context of the entire concerto behind them.

The final portion of the movement, marked “Allegro, ma non troppo,” serves as the concerto’s conclusion. It is spirited but tempered as if acknowledging the complexities and emotional depth explored in the preceding movements. The music builds toward a decisive end, finally offering a sense of closure that has been carefully prepared throughout the work.

Technically, the fourth movement presents its own set of challenges for the cellist. From intricate fingerwork to demanding bowing techniques, the performer has to navigate a wide range of technical requirements. Like the rest of the concerto, the final movement demands not just virtuosity but also emotional depth and interpretive insight.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and particularly its fourth movement, is often viewed as a reflection of the composer’s own emotional landscape at the time he wrote it, which was filled with introspection, nostalgia, and an underlying sense of resilience. The finale embodies this complexity, offering both a conclusion and a summation of the concerto’s diverse emotional and thematic elements.

The fourth movement, therefore, is not just an end but a resolution, both musically and emotionally. It closes the chapter on a work that takes listeners and performers alike on a complex emotional journey, one that remains a staple in the cello repertoire for its depth, complexity, and sheer expressive power.

Jacqueline du Pré

Jacqueline du Pré with Daniel Barenboim
Jacqueline du Pré with Daniel Barenboim. From an album cover. Du Pré met pianist Daniel Barenboim on New Year’s Eve 1966. Shortly after the end of the Six-Day War, she canceled all her existing engagements (antagonizing promoters), and they flew to Jerusalem. She converted to Judaism, and they were married on 15 June 1967] at the Western Wall.

Jacqueline Mary du Pré, OBE (26 January 1945 – 19 October 1987) was an English cellist. At a young age, she achieved enduring mainstream popularity unusual for a classical performer. Despite her short career, she is regarded as one of the most talented cellists of the second half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, her career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, which forced her to stop performing at the age of 28. She battled the illness for many years before her death.

She was married to the famous pianist and composer Daniel Barenboim until her premature death.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

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