The piece was composed during the summer of 1919 at Elgar's secluded cottage named "Brinkwells" near Fittleworth in Sussex, where during previous years he had heard the sound of the artillery of World War I rumbling across the Channel at night from France. In 1918, Elgar underwent an operation in London to have an infected tonsil removed, a dangerous operation for a 61-year-old man. After regaining consciousness after sedation, he asked for pencil and paper, and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme from the concerto. He and his wife soon retired to the cottage in an attempt to recover from their health problems. In 1918, Elgar composed three chamber works, which his wife noted were already noticeably different from his previous compositions, and after their premiere in the spring of 1919, he began realising his idea of a cello concerto.
The première of the concerto was given by Felix Salmond on 27 October 1919 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, at the Queen's Hall in London. The performance was scheduled such that Albert Coates, the conductor of the London Symphony, would conduct the rest of the program whilst Elgar himself would conduct the concerto. Coates, a self-important man, was well known for using up to forty-five minutes of his hour of rehearsal time lecturing his players. After consuming an hour of Elgar's rehearsal time, Elgar—who was until that time waiting offstage for his chance to rehearse—uncharacteristically exploded. The severely under-rehearsed performance which followed received scathing reviews, with Ernest Newman stating that "the orchestra made a public exhibition of its miserable self." Elgar later said that if it weren't for Salmond's diligent work in preparing the piece, he would have pulled it from the concert entirely.
Allegro — Moderato — Allegro, ma non troppo — Poco più lento — Adagio. (approx. 11:30)
The piece represented, for Elgar, the angst, despair, and disillusionment he felt after the end of the War, and an introspective look at death and mortality. It was a significant change in his style, as he wrote much of his previous works in a noble and jovial style, inspired by the English way of life and the pre-war renaissance of European art.
The concerto opens with a dramatic recitative in the solo cello, immediately followed by a short cadenza. The viola section then presents a rendition of the main theme, then pass it to the solo cello who repeats it and then modifies it into a stronger, more painful restatement. The orchestra reiterates, and the cello presents the theme a final time before moving directly into the lighter-hearted and lyrical middle section. This transitions into another presentation of the main theme, now cold and distant and a mere echo of the original theme. The slower first movement moves directly into the fast, light-hearted second movement (acting as a scherzo although it is not in triple time) without a pause.
The third movement starts and ends with an extremely lyrical melody, and one theme runs through the entire movement, giving it a loving and nostalgic feeling. The end flows directly into the finale (again with no pause), contrasting the sweet melody of the B flat major slow movement, with the menacing, B-flat minor opening of the finale. The fourth movement's main theme is noble and stately, but with menacing undertones and with many key-changes, giving it the feeling of instability. Near the end of the piece, the tempo slows into a più lento section, in which a new set of themes appears. The tempo slows further, to the tempo of the third movement, and the theme from that movement is restated. This tempo continues to slow until it becomes stagnant, and the orchestra holds a chord. Then, at the very end of the piece, the opening of the first movement is played again, with subtle differences. This flows into a reiteration of the main theme of the fourth movement, with tension building until the final three chords, which close the piece.
Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma all recorded the concerto, but it was popularized by Jacqueline du Pré's 1965 recording with John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI. During a break in the recording session, the 20-year-old du Pré left the studio, returning to find a large audience of local musicians and critics who had heard that a star was in the making. Many critics consider du Pré's recording to be the definitive recording of the Elgar concerto; upon hearing it, Rostropovich is said to have erased the work from his repertoire. Du Pré's recording has been continually praised for its astonishing passion as well as a remarkably secure technique. Barbirolli himself had an association with the concerto from its very earliest days: he was a member of the cello section of the orchestra at its 1919 premiere; and he was the soloist at only its second public performance, with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Sir Dan Godfrey.
The recording by the current President of the Elgar Society, Julian Lloyd Webber conducted by Yehudi Menuhin (who himself recorded with Elgar) won the 1987 BRIT Award for the best British classical recording of that year. The recording was also chosen by the Elgar scholar Dr. Jerrold Northrop Moore as the 'best-ever version' on BBC Radio 3's 'Building a Library'.
^ Steinberg, M. The Concerto: A Listener's Guide, Oxford (1998) p. 185-189.
Elgar hummed the concerto's opening theme to a friend in 1934 during his final illness, telling him, "If ever after I'm dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don't be alarmed. It's only me."
J. B. Priestley used the concerto in his 1948 play The Linden Tree in which the daughter of the play's main character, an aging professor of history who is under pressure to retire, is a cellist, and in Act II she practises the concerto offstage.