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Elgar (1857-1934)/Payne (1936-) - 'Symphony No. 3'

The concept of “Music as a Means of Self-Expression” became pandemic only during the Nineteenth Century. Married to the broadly parallel rise of “copyright”, this bred the current obsession with composers' proprietary rights over their “personal expressions”. Think about it: Deryck Cooke's celebrated performing version of Mahler's Tenth is, to some, still controversial, while more recently two realisations of Ives' Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard and Larry Austin, are far less contentious. Why? Proprietary rights! Alma Mahler was vehemently opposed to anyone messing with her late husband's “personal expressions”, while the pragmatic Ives bequeathed his accumulated sketches to the world, hoping that “some day, somebody might make something of them”. 

From this perspective, Elgar's sketches for his projected Third Symphony relate more to Mahler's case than Ives'. The mortally ill Elgar just once implored violinist W. H. Reed, his “play-through” assistant, “Don't let anyone tinker with it”. This single proprietary expression held absolute sway for 50 years. That Elgar had also said, in a less depressed (and more prophetic) moment, “If I can't complete [it], somebody will . . . or write a better one, in 50 or 500 years”, was utterly ignored. I suspect that Reed, by including many of the sketches in his book, Elgar as I Knew Him, might have deliberately planted a copyright “time-bomb” to rescue the music from eternal internment in some obscure oubliette. After all, only the impending cessation of copyright finally persuaded Elgar's family to sanction Anthony Payne's deeply considered work. One way or another, Reed secured a just resolution: dabblers were kept out, while someone competent was let in. 

Of this Symphony, we really cannot enquire, “Is it Elgar?” The answer is obvious: “No”. But neither is it Payne, and before your, “Well, whose is it, then?” let me ask, “Does it actually matter?” The fabled “bottom line” is that it never “matters” who wrote the music, only that it is eloquent. Where’s the rule that says “the composer” must be one person? Composition can be (and sometimes is) is a team effort. Of course, Payne’s problem was that he couldn't liaise with Elgar (though sometimes I wonder). Consequently, for the final product to retain any integrity, Payne had to subsume his own personality and immerse himself in the role of “Elgar” (and excel at jigsaw puzzles, and - apparently - “engineering” and “concoction”). While saying that he “had to become Elgar”, he insists that “the symphony is my piece”. This is less paradoxical than it sounds. 

So, while this symphony isn't Elgar's, it does contain enough Elgar to afford afficionados a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. During the public premiere's BBC Radio 3 introduction, Stephen Johnson said, “. . . the beginning of the finale . . . is a very interesting example of where there is Elgar, there is half-Elgar, and there is pure Payne” (the pun, I trust, is unintentional!), and Andrew Davis, in asserting that even experts can't tell what's whose, attested to Payne's technical achievement.  “Bottom line” time again: we must enquire, “Is it good music?” The answer, again, is “No”! Why? Because it's more than that - as a miraculous synthesis of the workings of two brilliant musical imaginations at a half-century's remove, it's absolutely wonderful music. Billy Reed, we are ever in your debt! 

Nevertheless, the opening bars (whose sound would sit comfortably in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle) and the slow movement's start (the “opening of bronze doors”, into a room that Shostakovich would eventually occupy) confirm the undimmed vigour of Elgar's creativity. His sketches surpass even the 'Cello Concerto in their searing vision of personal mortality: sehnsucht for what is gone forever is pitched against the chilling horror of indefinite destiny (the characters of the inner movements). This battle, often fought but never won, is stunningly realised through Payne's imaginatively devotional work. 

In this synopsis, the descriptions of the outer movements - complex, multi-thematic sonata forms - have been necessarily foreshortened : 

1. Allegro molto maestoso:  The first subject has two main ideas: the first strides in bold uncertainty over a vertiginous chasm to the striving, extrovert second, buzzed by a thematic gnat which flourishes in the development. The second subject's rhythm recalls the opening theme, but it is otherwise legato and expansive. The exposition is repeated. Alternating its initial mysterious air with intensely combative episodes, the development yields to a telescoped reprise heralded by an energetic tamtam. The coda, a complex motivic interweaving, is ultimately reminiscent of the first movement of Elgar's Second

2. Scherzo - allegretto: A Brahmsian intermezzo, broadly an ABACAD[A] rondo. The wistful salon music of [A], reacting to the heightened drama of [C], is explosively transformed third time round, its formerly subjugate trumpet counterpoint erupting on belligerent brass. [B] and [D] share a particularly Brahms-like amplitude, while the coda drifts, dream-like, in a haze of thematic resonances. 

3. Adagio solenne: Like the Andante of Schubert's Eighth, two themes are stated and recapitulated with “development” absorbed into the reprise. If the first movement's start straddled a chasm, this faces the Abyss, its anguish descending onto a sorrowing solo viola. The first subject's brass-burnished lament complements the second's emergence from loneliness into longing. Finally, as the light glimmers, that wracked opening returns with dismaying inevitability. 

4. Allegro: The first subject blazes in brassy chivalry, thence to punchy allegro, uplifting nobilmente, and (of all things) a decidedly “sassy” horn phrase. The second group's similar character is underlined by an unforced resurgence of the “sassy” theme, prefacing the embattled development. The recapitulation bypasses the 'chivalric' theme, but achieves an extended lyrical amalgam of the movement's nobilmente. From the ensuing hush, the “punchy allegro” theme traces the progress of Elgar's The Waggon Passes. As this rolls ahead, the ghost of the symphony's opening seeps into the texture, whereupon all is absorbed into the grey gauze of the unknowable. 

That final sound is contentious: those who contend argue that Elgar would finish on a “proper” cadence. But, as it happens, Elgar left the ending entirely to Payne, so the only relevant consideration is, “Does it work?” To my mind, it does, both musically and, if you insist, in the context of “synthetic Elgar” – if we cannot know, how else to end than with music's patented Cosmic Question Mark? 

Like March, the Twentieth Century came in like a lion, and it was doomed to go out like a lamb, save for this one astounding work. Elgar's family may be regretting their protracted reluctance, although this begs the question: would an easier ride have blunted the fighting edge of the questing spirit that so vitally informs Payne's inspired - and inspiring - “concoction”? Like so much else, we'll never know: let's just rejoice in what we have. 

Anthony Payne gives a full account in Elgar's Third Symphony - The Story of the Reconstruction (Faber & Faber, 1998).
 


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

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