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Elgar (1857-1934) - Froissart Overture

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. 

Elgar matured slowly in the provincial vat. Too slowly, perhaps: already in his thirties and still virtually unknown outside the Midlands, he could justifiably have had a personal motive for quoting Keats at the head of his first substantial orchestral composition. “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high” sounds suspiciously like Elgar tilting at the metropolitan mainstream. Certainly this 1890 Worcester Festival commission marked his arrival as a distinctive musical personality, his first step on the road to pre-eminence. 

Froissart was a Fourteenth Century French chronicler, whose writings inspired Elgar to create a work every bit as much a product of the high Romantic as any contemporaneous Strauss tone-poem. Although Elgar and Strauss would have then known little of each other, the two share some remarkable similarities of style, rich in sonority and grandiloquent of gesture, the big difference being (of course) that of national accent. The overture's structure might best be described as “rhapsodic, with a hint of sonata”: there are (at least, arguably) four themes, presented in an orderly manner but thereafter called on apparently at whim. Not that it matters much: “Froissart”, whether it be in soaring aspiration, purposeful (four-footed?) procession or felicitous musing, is prophetic of the Elgar to come. Oh, but then there's also that fabulous orchestration . . .

© Paul Serotsky
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