Concerto after Elgar

for Viola and Orchestra

  • Genre
    Solo Instrument with Orchestra
  • Commissioned by/written for
    Csaba Erdelyi
  • Year completed
  • Year revised
  • Timing
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Why did the great Romantic-era composers virtually bypass the viola when it came to writing concertos? I'm sure many people, particularly violists, have been asking this question for more than a century now. This situation exists despite the fact that the century produced some notable exponents of the alto voice of the string family. These included Chrétien Urhan, who gave the premiere of Harold en Italie by Berlioz, after Paganini, in the throes of his affair with the instrument, had commissioned the work and then rejected it as not soloistic enough. Although the Italian virtuoso came to love the work after he heard its premiere, his enthusiasm for the viola was not influential enough to persuade other 19th-century composers to write substantial concerted works for it. I, too, have regretted the dearth of viola literature from the Romantic era, and have long dreamed of trying to do something about it. Although I have been primarily a violinist as an instrumentalist, I do own a viola and occasionally play it, basking in its deep rich tones. Decades ago, before the advent of my formal "After" series, in which I have sought to mimic the compositional voices of past composers who never wrote for certain instruments, I actually began a viola concerto in the style of Brahms. In those days, however, my music was virtually unknown, and so lacking any assurance of a performance, I gave up the project before I got very far into it. I'd gotten to know Csaba Erdélyi originally when he was on the viola faculty at Indiana University's renowned School of Music in the 1980s, and we became friends during his frequent visits to the music shop I owned at that time. When he took a position at another university, I lost contact with him, although he had been in my mind as the person for whom I would someday write a Romantic style concerto. In 2015, when pianist and conductor Ian Hobson recorded (in the latter capacity) several of my "After" concertos in Poland, I was relaxing with him in a restaurant after the final session had been completed. During our conversation I mentioned the fact that I'd become very interested in the music of Edward Elgar and hoped to write a Viola Concerto "After" Elgar someday. Hobson told me I should write one for the principal violist in his Sinfonia da Camera. I was amazed to learn that this was none other than my old friend, Csaba Erdélyi. I pounced on Hobson’s suggestion, but even though I began the short score on April 28, 2017, I was not able to plunge into work on the Concerto in earnest until other compositional commitments had been fulfilled. Concerto after Elgar is the 15th work in my "After" series, as I had previously written concertos for various instruments in the styles of Dvořák, Gershwin, Glière, Khachaturian, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, as well as chamber and solo instrumental works "after" Brahms, Joplin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Poulenc, Schumann, and Vierne. The present work is, at a half-hour in duration, the most extended work in this series to date. I should mention that I do have my own compositional voice, and have written a further 120 works in various contemporary styles, ranging from freely tonal to quite avant-garde. I have personalized the present Concerto for Erdélyi by beginning the main theme of the opening movement with the notes in German usage that correspond to the letters in his given name. Thus the letters C-S-A-B-A are represented with the musical notes C-E-A-B-A. The short score of the Concerto was not completed until February 22, 2018, and I undertook the orchestration of the work between February 28th and March 23rd of 2018. While some of my “After” Concertos have been composed from beginning to end in no more than two months, Concerto after Elgar caused me more "blood, sweat, and tears" than any other work in my "After" series. Elgar's style, while very recognizable, proved to be quite challenging for me to capture reasonably convincingly. Additionally, duplicating Elgar's complex harmonic language presented its own challenges. I had to rewrite a few passages of this work as many as a dozen times before I was satisfied with them, and even now, some of the work undoubtedly sounds more like me simply writing in a Romantic style than Elgar in particular. Cast in the traditional three movements, this work contains little that is traditional in form in any of its movements, any more than is the case in Elgar's own concertos. Each movement in my work contains a sequence of slower and faster sections, and each begins with an orchestral introduction and ends with a quick flurry of notes. The second movement is actually essentially two movements conflated into one, merging a noble slow movement with a quicksilver scherzo. Stylistically, I have sought to mimic Elgar through certain harmonic and melodic sequences, including a bit of use of his trademark melodic descending minor seventh, and I have employed Elgar's habit of frequently changing the tempo and tonal regions, often to distantly related areas of harmony from that of the fundamental key of each movement. The listener will note my attempt in the last movement to create a new Pomp and Circumstance March in further homage to the great English master, who wrote six such marches (the last one being quite unknown). I have also sought to reflect Elgar's penchant for puns and enigmas, and have incorporated about a dozen short quotes (or "musical puns," if you will) from this great composer's body of works, hiding them at various points in the score. A few of these will be rather obvious, but finding some of them will prove a considerable challenge even for the most ardent Elgarian. One of Elgar's most famous works is, of course, his Enigma Variations, the main theme of which was intended to accompany another melody that Elgar never revealed, leaving musicologists to pursue it ever since. I do not intend to conceal my Elgar quotes in perpetuity, and so their locations shall be among my papers for someone to discover after I am gone. Thus, those who try to find these "buried treasures" in this Concerto, presuming they outlive me, will eventually discover how successful they were.

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