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Elgar (1857-1934) - Overture: Cockaigne

Although the 1890s saw Elgar concentrating on big choral works, his first major success came through the orchestral Enigma Variations (1899). His career suffered a minor hiccough in 1900, when The Dream of Gerontius, commissioned for Birmingham Festival, went down like a lead balloon at its première. However, Elgar's music was not at fault, because soon afterwards it was well received at two performances in Düsseldorf, even earning an accolade from Richard Strauss, who declared Elgar to be the foremost English composer of the day. Considering the esteem in which English music was then held (“Das Land ohne Musik”), this was possibly a back-handed compliment, but nevertheless it had the desirable effect of awakening a pan-European enthusiasm for Elgar's music. Elgar had “arrived”, and enjoyed international stardom, at least until the outbreak of war in 1914. 

I wonder to what extent Strauss' compliment was prompted by his recognising something of himself in Elgar's music. As early as 1890, in Froissart, there is a distinctly Straussian “flavour” in the succulence of the writing for horns and 'cellos. Similarly, but more significantly, Elgar's trademark nobilmente seems to have been less wholly original than many believe, and more a wholly original adaptation of Strauss' characteristically florid melodic contours. Or was it? It is said that Elgar's harmonic style derives from Schumann and Brahms, coloured by the pervasive influence of Wagner. Prior to Froissart, he seems to have led a pretty provincial existence, with limited opportunities to sample the latest music from the continent. In any case, Elgar would have been quick off the mark to have been influenced by Strauss, whose Don Juan (likewise the first example of his mature style) appeared only a year before Froissart. So, maybe it's just a coincidence. Nevertheless, it's a remarkable one. 

By the time Cockaigne appeared (1901), Elgar's style had matured, although that similarity to Strauss was still detectable. Elgar noted, in the score of this explicit evocation of contemporary London, that “Cockaigne” is traditionally the fictitious “Land of All Delights” (a.k.a. “The Abode of Luxury and Idleness”). Popularly associated with London, this description is thought to be the origin of “Cockney” (I bet that took some working out!). Elgar dedicated Cockaigne to his “many friends the members of British Orchestras”; the imaginative scoring, encompassing chamber-like filigree and bombastic military band, certainly gave every corner of the orchestra plenty to chew on. 

Combining elements of sonata and rondo form, a (very!) rough thematic scheme might be (ABA-C-ABA-D)-(ABA-C)-(ACA-D)-(BA). The letters represent not repetition but use of themes (some of which are related). Dashes indicate rondo-like sections, while brackets highlight the sonata-like sequence of exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. Having thus diverted the analytically-minded, the rest of us can marvel at the brilliant way Elgar organises his materials to give the paradoxical impression of carefree whimsy (less well-assembled, it would be more wishy-washy than whimsical). Some episodes he associated with particular images. [A] is a “chirpy cockney” tune spawning [B], a nobilmente melody hinting at luxury. [C] is the dalliance of lovers in a park. Following [D] (that military band), an exquisite calm supposedly represents lovers wandering into a church seeking peace and quiet (“for what?” we might ask). 

We inevitably confront the “programme music” problem. While few would argue that the music is not “about” emotions (fun, love, serenity etc.), can it really conjure the impression of turn-of-the-century London? Why not turn-of-the-century Huddersfield, and lovers in Greenhead Park? Really, music is like plasticine: you can accept it as it comes out of the packet, or make of it what you will. In this case, I am perfectly happy to go along with Elgar. Well, most of the time.

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


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