The score of Elgar’s 1910 "Violin Concerto" carries the Spanish preface, "Aqui está encerrada el alma de ....." ( "Herein is enshrined the soul of ....." ). Is it a secret love letter to the wife of a member of Parliament or even, as Elgar biographer Jerrold Northrup Moore suggests, a tribute to several of the composer’s closest friends? And does it really matter anyway?
Every artist has his or her “greatest hit” – a work with which he or she is uniquely identified. Think of Bogart’s Sam Spade, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor”. The Russian composer’s “Isle of the Dead” – an impassioned performance of which opened this weekend’s St. Louis Symphony concerts - never made it to “greatest hit” status (the Symphony hasn’t performed it since 1976), but the painting that inspired it almost certainly was the most popular thing created by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin. The stark landscape of an island necropolis towards which a white-robed figure is being rowed apparently struck a sympathetic chord over a century ago and is still compelling today. Böcklin painted five different versions of it (one of which was destroyed in World War II) in the 1880s, and reproductions were apparently common in an early 20th century Europe still reeling from war and influenza.