I don’t know much about music but love. As a teen, on rare nights that I had the house and the record-player to myself, I’d lie on the 70s lime green carpet and listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. A totally nerdy, secret pleasure – and one of my father’s favourite pieces of full orchestral heart-string narrative.
Listen, listen, he would whisper when lounge-room conducting to rival von Karajan himself. Listen to every sigh, listen to the story.
Dad, have another Riesling.
During those teen years, I even had a crack at learning to play the cello – very badly. I was too impatient for the perfection of the sounds, too much a craver of story to work at it to make my own.
But strangely, despite my stringy romance, at the time I’d never heard of Edward Elgar or his magnificent Cello Concerto in E minor. I mean, what self-respecting morosely nerdy teenage girl hasn’t listened to everything written in E minor by the time she turns fifteen? I was eighteen, living in a uni share house and drinking plenty of fairly terrible Riesling myself when I did hear it.
And when I did, I burst into tears. Tears of huge story, though I didn’t yet know what that story was. I was probably mostly missing dad but I was overcome from the first few bars, and I’ve remained so over the almost thirty ensuing years.
Dad didn’t think much of Elgar, I suspect because he was English for a start and the author of Pomp and Circumstance – anything smacking of Empire set his Republican teeth on edge. Elgar’s Cello Concerto, though, was quite a different kettle from a nationalistic march.
This melancholy, exquisitely beautiful piece was never popular during Elgar’s lifetime. He composed it in the aftermath of the First World War, and to my ear, my heart, it’s a love song to his country, steeped in the soul-dragging tragedy of the wholesale destruction of youth, and of life stepping over it to get on with things. In the sighs of this music, I hear that Elgar felt in his own heart that nothing would ever be the same.
I read somewhere once that towards the end of the war, Elgar lived in the south of England and could hear the shelling across the Channel in northern France, and that it’s this which gives the piece its spine-chilling waves of emotion.
If you want to listen to something a little different this Anzac weekend, something full of love and beauty telling of the profound sadness this war inflicted on our world, here is a recent version of the concerto, with the gorgeous Sol Gabetta as cello soloist, and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra at her back. Peace to you and yours.