On 27 October 1919, the LSO performed the world premiere of one of the most popular works in the repertoire: Elgar's Cello Concerto. It may be popular now, but it wasn't always the case...
In 1919 the LSO was only just recovering from the ravages of World War I. Many members had been called up to fight and the Orchestra had struggled to keep performing under the circumstances of curfews and the new threat of bombs from the sky, dropped by German Zeppelins. The 1919/20 season was the first time the Orchestra had managed to bring back its 'own-promoted' series of concerts with help from its new Principal Conductor Albert Coates, who offered to waive his fee to help the Orchestra get back on its feet.
For the opening concert of the season the Orchestra had put together a programme that included a new work by Edward Elgar: the Cello Concerto. The LSO and Elgar had had a long and productive relationship from the early 1900s, premiering many works (including the Introduction and Allegro, Falstaff, some of the Pomp & Circumstance marches and the first London performance of the First Symphony) and even appointing him Principal Conductor for a season in 1911.
Cover of the concert programme for 27 October 1919, LSO Archive
The Orchestra's Leader Billy Reed was a great friend of Elgar's, and it's easy to see why he would turn to his favourite orchestra to premiere his new work. On board was Felix Salmond, a cellist Elgar had met during the premieres of the chamber works he had written earlier in 1918 and 1919 – the Piano Quintet and String Quartet.
Felix Salmond and Edward Elgar, The Elgar Birthplace Museum
However, despite Elgar's successes in the early part of the 20th century, by this time his music was rather out of fashion. There is no evidence to back this up, but one might infer from what happened on that day that Albert Coates wasn't altogether thrilled by having to include a new work by a slightly unfashionable composer in his inaugural concert!
The programme was already challenging, with Borodin's 'Heroic' Symphony, Wagner's 'Forest Murmurs' from Siegfried and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy (of which the LSO had given the first UK performance a few years before) on the bill, and no doubt rehearsal time for the concert was already at a premium. On the day itself, Coates spent much more than his alloted time in rehearsing the other two works, quite likely in order to make sure that his first appearance with the Orchestra was as polished as possible.
27 October 1919 concert programme, LSO Archive
This left, however, very little time for Elgar and Salmond to run through the new work with the Orchestra. "That brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder ... that brute Coates went on rehearsing. Remonstrated, no use, at last just before 1 he stopped & the men like Angels stayed till 1.30" wrote Elgar's wife Alice in her diary. According the diary, Elgar would have pulled the piece from the concert if it were not for the amount of work that Salmond had done on its preparation.
The concert was a disaster. "Never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself," said the critic Ernest Newman in The Observer. Poor Elgar. The Concerto was not heard in London again for over a year, which must have been a disappointment to the composer who was used to his works receiving immediate repeat performances – the First Symphony alone receiving 100 performances a year after the 1908 premiere.
Thankfully the debacle did not sour Elgar's relationship with the LSO (nor with Felix Salmond, who worked with Elgar again later on despite not being able to record the work due to contract issues). Elgar made many of the first recordings of his works with the Orchestra towards the end of his life, and famously opened the Abbey Road Studios with the Orchestra playing Land of Hope and Glory in 1931.
There is of course a happy ending to the story of the Cello Concerto. In the 1960s the recording made by the 20-year-old Jacqueline Du Pré with the LSO (conducted by John Barbirolli, who as a young cellist played in the Orchestra at the 1919 premiere), captured the hearts of listeners everywhere and became a firm favourite, where it remains today. Elgar was vindicated in holding this work as one of his own favourites. During his final illness in 1933, Elgar hummed the concerto's first theme to Billy Reed and said, "If ever after I'm dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don't be alarmed. It's only me."
Top image: Elgar with the LSO at the opening of Abbey Road Studios, 1932, EMI Archive
This article was originally written on 27 October 2017 and has been updated.
Alisa Weilerstein performs Elgar's Cello Concerto in a concert conducted by François-Xavier Roth on Thursday 19 December.