Yo-Yo Ma Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

When I lived in England, everyone loved and talked about the music of Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Elgar is right up there with George Frideric Handel among the island’s musical luminaries. So imagine my surprise when I moved back to America and found that very few people–even classical music lovers–had ever heard of this remarkable composer.

Elgar was a product of his time, with a career that straddled the twilight of romanticism with the dawn of modernism. Technically he falls within the period of twentieth-century music, but his style leaned more to the nineteenth-century for inspiration.

In Elgar there is a juxtaposition of innocence and pride characteristic of pre-WWI Britain, combined with the masculine beauty of the Edwardian period. Even when his music is at its most heart-breakingly sweet, it never loses the sense of manly stature. It is romanticism without gush, beauty without sentimentalism, manly pride without bravado.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, written in the aftermath of the Great War, seems to embody a painful longing for a bygone age. It is a complex amalgam of melancholy and triumph, surrender and imperialism, longing and acceptance, lyricism and dissonance, ostentation and innocence. In this work, it is almost as if we can hear the mature composer longing for a return to the simplicity of an earlier era (an era that embodied the innocent charm in a work like Salut d’Amour), but with a wisdom that has been wrought through pain–a wisdom that knows that the disasters of century’s second decade can never be reversed.

I have listened to this work dozens of times (including two live performances), but it is still full of surprises me, and it still brings tears to my eyes.

In 1994, Yo-Yo Ma performed this work with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This was Yo-Yo Ma at his best. Enjoy!

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Further Reading

Having Fun on the Piano

When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Mary Poppins. This song ‘”Spoon Full of Sugar” is a lot of fun to play on the piano. Matthew took this video so I thought I’d share it here for a change of pace.

Music and the Church Fathers

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music into the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to have this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that an abiding concern among many of the church fathers was music. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism was felt was in popular music.

The difference between their world and ours is not that paganism no longer makes inroads into the church through music. The difference is that many Christians today no longer think that music is an area where we need to exercise discernment.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church chooses to play for its worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you will get is not that your criticisms are false, but that it is based on a category mistake because this is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I was talking to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that certain types of music are more suited to various activities than other types of music. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that we make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

Here are some examples of what I mean. If you were to ask anyone to suggest a type of music to create a festive atmosphere, or a melancholy mood, to hype someone up before a fight, to create an atmosphere appropriate for seduction or a barbecue or a birthday party, we could all name certain styles and probably even certain specific pieces. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians are hesitate to suggest that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we talk about music. One of the reasons why Christians are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because they haven’t first understood about music from Monday to Saturday.

Partly this is because we haven’t understood how important music really is. It is commonly assumed among Christians that it is only the words that make a song good or bad. We’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a proper theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment:


Perlman Plays Brahms Violin Concerto

I recently discovered the recording of Itzhak Perlman playing Brahms Violin Concerto in D major. I was even more delighted to discover a video of this amazing performance. Perlman brings a sensitivity and passion appropriate for one of the most beautiful musical works ever composed.

The Spiritual Vision of J.S. Bach

In April 2009, British atheist A.N. Wilson shocked the world by announcing that he was returning to the Christian faith. When asked later in an interview what was the worst thing about being faithless, the writer and newspaper columnist replied:

When I thought I was an atheist I would listen to the music of Bach and realize that his perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than my own. . . . The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story. J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music.

A.N. Wilson is not alone. In his Introduction to the book Does God Exist? Peter Kreeft noted that he personally knows three ex-atheists who were swayed by the argument, “There is the music of Bach, therefore there must be a God.” Of these, Kreeft informed his readers, two are now philosophy professors and one is a monk.

Even the God-hater Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), upon hearing a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, was compelled to admit that “one who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

Bach would certainly approve, for he once remarked that “music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.” To underscore this point, he wrote the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) at the end of most of his scores.

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Food and Music

One of the factors behind the American fast-food movement is the assumption that eating should be as easy as possible and that the ideal meal is one that requires a minimum amount of effort on the part of the consumer and provider. The proliferation of microwave dinners has also been fueled by the assumption that eating should be an experience with as little effort, time, and struggle as possible. This is in marked contrast to the rest of the world, especially Southern Europe and South-East Asia, where much time and effort is devoted to meals.

In Southern Europe much time and effort is devoted to meals, which serve important social functions as a result.

In Southern Europe much time and effort is devoted to meals, which serve important social functions as a result.

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