The Royal Philharmonic Society of London commissioned the concerto in 1909, when Elgar was at the height of his fame. It is dedicated to the Austrian virtuoso Fritz Kreisler who was the soloist at the first performance which took place on 10 November 1910.
Elgar himself was a violinist, but he also called upon his friend W. H. Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra for technical advice while writing the concerto, and Kreisler may also have made some influential suggestions.
The première of the concerto was Elgar’s last great popular success. Of his later large-scale works neither the Second Symphony nor Falstaff nor the Cello Concerto achieved the immediate popularity of the First Symphony or this concerto.
The score carries the Spanish inscription, "Aqui está encerrada el alma de ....." ("Herein is enshrined the soul of ....."), a quotation from the novel Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage. This inscription is one of Elgar's enduring enigmas. It might conceivably refer to Elgar himself but Elgar reportedly told a friend that the "soul" was feminine.
The mysterious inscription might refer to Julia Worthington, an American friend of the Elgars'. However, the inscription is now most widely believed to allude to Alice Stuart-Wortley, the daughter of the painter John Everett Millais. She was Elgar’s dear friend whom he nicknamed "Windflower.
Like most concertos it has three movements. They are marked:
The work is on a very large scale for a concerto, taking between forty-five and fifty-five minutes to perform (see 'Recordings' below for indicative timings).
The first movement, in traditional sonata form, begins with a long orchestral exposition of the themes, before the violin enters with a restatement of the first subject.
The second movement, in the key of B flat, has a shorter orchestral prelude, and is mostly quiet and songful, but rises to an impassioned climax.
The last movement begins with a quiet but strenuous violin passage, accompanied by the orchestra, with many double stops and fast arpeggios; themes from the first and second movements are recalled and then, as the movement seems to be heading for a conventional finish, there is an unexpected and unconventional accompanied cadenza in which the orchestra supports the solo with a pizzicato tremolando thrumming effect. This cadenza, though demanding to perform, is not the usual virtuoso showpiece: it is the emotional and structural climax of the whole work. Themes from earlier in the work are restated and finally the concerto ends in a characteristic blaze of orchestral sound.
Elgar said of the work, 'It's good! awfully emotional! too emotional, but I love it.'
A version of the concerto was recorded in 1916, using the acoustic process, the technical limitations of which necessitated drastic rearrangement of the score. The soloist was Marie Hall, and the unnamed orchestra was conducted by the composer.
Electrical recording, introduced in the 1920s, gave a greatly improved dynamic range and realism, and the two leading English record companies, Columbia and HMV both made recordings of the concerto that remain in the catalogue. The first complete recording was made in 1929 for Columbia by Albert Sammons with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood.
The recording was made at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio 1 in 1932 and has remained in print on 78, LP and CD ever since.
These two recordings typify the two contrasting approaches to the work that have existed ever since: Sammons and Wood, in a brisk performance, take just over 43 minutes to play the work; Menuhin and Elgar, in a more overtly expressive reading take almost 50 minutes.
Other recordings of the monaural era include those by Jascha Heifetz (1949) and Alfredo Campoli (1954). Both these performances are in the Sammons/Wood tradition, taking, respectively, approximately 42 and 45 minutes.
Many modern stereo recordings favour the slower approach of Menuhin and Elgar. Menuhin himself in his stereo remake in 1965 was slightly quicker (just under 48 minutes) than he had been in 1932, but Pinchas Zukerman in his two studio versions took a little over 50 minutes in his first recording and a little under 49 in his second. Both of Nigel Kennedy’s recordings play for nearly 54 minutes. Itzhak Perlman’s is slightly faster, at just over 47 minutes; and Dong-Suk Kang’s takes under 45 minutes.
A recording released in 2006 used a text based on Elgar’s manuscript score rather than the published version. Philippe Graffin, the soloist who performed the manuscript score, counted more than 40 places where the published version differs from Elgar’s original. The changes are thought to have been suggested by Kreisler to make the solo part more effective. (Reviewing the CD in June 2006 The Gramophone’s critic Edward Greenfield observed, ‘some that the differences are very small…I have to confess that had I not been told, I might have appreciated only two of them’.)