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Elgar (1857-1934) - Overture: In the South (Alassio)

Part of Elgar's magic is his facility with music on both the grandest scale and the most intimate.  At one end are nobility and profound spirituality, at the other melodic felicity and disarming  good humour. Bridging - and blurring - the boundary between the two is his consummate craftsmanship, bestowed equally on works both great and small. That the two become ideally  balanced in his medium-scale works probably explains the extraordinary appeal of Cockaigne,  the Introduction and Allegro, and Alassio. His “voice” is unique, owing nothing to anybody. Or does it? 

Well, perhaps a little to Schumann, from whom he inherited an ability to “roll” his arguments, and  maybe to Brahms for the solidity of his structures. Then again, back then, who wasn't just a bit  influenced by Wagner's looming shadow? However, it surely cannot be coincidence that  Froissart (1890), Elgar's first orchestral work, shared to a remarkable degree the sound-world of  Richard Strauss whose flurry of early symphonic poems was taking Europe by storm. This  influence (if such it be) was rapidly submerged by Elgar's own flurry of oratorios and the more  parochial nature of his succeeding orchestral works. 

However, following the premiere of The Apostles, he holidayed on the Italian Riviera. Amid the  sunshine and scenery was born the concert overture In the South (1904). Did the locale remind  Elgar of Strauss' Aus Italien (1886)?  If so, it would explain the sudden resurrection of that sonic kinship. In focusing on the opening's similarity to Don Juan, many commentators implicitly admit a blinkered view: Elgar throughout breathes the same air as Strauss. 

Another point of commonality is textural complexity. From the outset, Elgar's valiant main theme breeds like nobody's business. The purported structural similarity with Cockaigne is obscured by the lack of any emphatic “big march tune” punctuation marks. Instead, Elgar uses  muted, wistful episodes, the first of which links the long first subject workout to the arching  second (main) subject. The second opens the development section, which climaxes on  alternations of  imposing, brass-dominated statements with stabbing downwardly-arpeggiated  figures. Emerging from a warm haze on an entrancing solo viola , the third also forms the heart of the work, and leads directly into the reprise, varied and blended into the refulgent coda. By, it  must have been some holiday!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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