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Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – Symphony No. 1
“Gentlemen, now let us rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country.” Thus spake Hans Richter, in 1908, of Elgar’s First Symphony. Was he – renowned conductor of thoroughly modern symphonies by Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Bruckner – overstating his case? Maybe, but then maybe it was justifiable considering the circumstances, which much later led Michael Kennedy to conclude, “This was not only Elgar’s first symphony, it was England’s.”
For many, many years England had been “the Land without Music”, perhaps a harsh judgement, but substantially true. Admittedly, Englishmen like Parry, Stanford and Sullivan had written much splendid music, including symphonies, but at best they imparted an English flavour to a menu already served, consumed and digested in mainland Europe. Musically, England was a backwater, producing plenty of also-rans but no front-runners.
Then along came Elgar, dishing up roast beef and veg. liberally laced with tongue-toasting English mustard. His pièce de résistance (to date) came courtesy of a symphony that was, in many ways, right at the cutting edge of the avant-garde of the time! If that itself seems like overstatement, try comparing it with Mahler’s Seventh, which was also premiered in 1908. Then ask yourself whether our ears, cosied by the comfy nobilemente of his popular public gestures, aren’t thereby conned into glossing over his more abrasive, personally expressive music – in effect tucking the wood behind the trees.
By the end of the Nineteenth Century, people habitually accepted the British Empire’s stability and security. But, during the first decade of the Twentieth, it became obvious that this “Rock of Ages” was beginning to crack and crumble [1]. A growing unease was felt generally, but perhaps most acutely by the hypersensitive nerve-endings of the artistic. From this angle, it’s easy to imagine someone conceiving a symphony as something of a “mission statement” reminding people firstly of what they stood to lose, secondly of the “bulldog” spirit that built the Empire, and thirdly of their track record in coming out on top.
If that someone was anyone, it was Elgar. In Froissart (1890), the Enigma Variations (1899), Cockaigne (1901) and Alassio (1904) he’d shown an exceptional talent for bold, colourful expression. Indeed, in Froissart and Alassio you can readily detect a stylistic affinity with Richard Strauss, the current ruler of that particular roost. Following Brahms, however, Elgar acquired a rock-solid craftsmanship and structural ingenuity, evident in pieces like Cockaigne and the Introduction and Allegro (1905). Finally, there’s Elgar’s in-depth experience of musical dramatisation, developed through that long, magnificent line of oratorios and cantatas, culminating in The Kingdom (1906).
The C.V. was spot-on, the motivation was there, the time was ripe – and Elgar duly delivered the goods. Judging by the number of performances his symphony received during its first year – on average nearly one every three days – Elgar’s goods were in the “blockbuster” class. It had struck a singularly resonant chord, one whose relevance has reverberated down through the years, particularly wherever and whenever the well-being of honest citizens is jeopardised.
Viewed this way, the symphony can be said to deal with time-honoured subjects like peace under threat, conflict and victory. However, the secret of its success probably depends less on the subject matter itself than on the way it’s handled. While others might have composed four symphonic poems dressed up as a symphony, Elgar composed a symphony, first and foremost, with extra-musical ideas firmly subservient to logical processes. So, how come Elgar’s superbly structured work remains a drama as graphically involving as anything on stage or screen?
Typically, Elgar’s predecessors represented opposing ideas by contrasted themes, resulting in relatively cut-and-dried views of conflict. As I see it, Elgar represents some opponents as sides of the same thematic coins – something bad being characterised by a derivative of a theme that characterises something good. This, coupled with the sidestepping of explicit “battles” in favour of generally overlooked, subtler aspects such as he deals with in his slow movement, lends Elgar’s drama a distinctly psychological edge. With his First Symphony, Elgar shattered the mould. So, maybe Richter wasn’t exaggerating?
The opening theme forms an introduction comparable to those of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto or Sibelius’s First Symphony. However, unlike Tchaikovsky’s, Elgar’s theme is no mere introduction, and unlike Sibelius’s it is threaded through the fabric of the entire work.
In fact, it’s soon obvious that Elgar’s theme, representing not the expected “conquering hero”, but a “wise elder”, is much more than a mere motto. It fertilises the fabric of the entire work. Yet, although it does so occasionally, the motto’s purpose is not primarily to spawn materials, in the manner of (say) Mahler. It is more of a guiding hand, which through many variants continually observes, reflects on, and ultimately influences the course of events.
1. Andante nobilemente e semplice – Allegro: From gloomy rumbling emerges Elgar’s motto, at first reserved then resonating confidently. The buoyant, athletic first subject is linked to the serene but capricious second via subsidiary, dancing motives. A codetta based on the first subject is subverted by belligerent brass charging down the hillsides, torching the latter dancing motive’s innocence into a corrupt inferno!
Stunned, the motto creeps among the ruins (marking the start of the development), the air of bewilderment subsequently heightened by chimerical scoring. Development focuses on the second subject group, at first increasingly panicky, but then subsiding into exhausted anxiety. The motto returns, subdued and questioning (marking the end of the development).
Increasing activity coalesces into the first subject’s reprise. Both main subjects show signs of shaken self-assurance, confirmed by the re-emergence of that infernal apparition, its ferocity unabated.
But in the ensuing coda, fleeting anxious visions are allayed by the motto, now growing in fortitude and reaching a climax of immense resolve. Anxiety is not dispelled (“resolve” is not quite the same as “resolution”!), yet in the gloaming there is a wonderful whisper of hope: the motto pleads, and is answered by a magical modulation onto the dancing motive, now cleansed of all corruption.
2. Allegro: There’s a curiously prophetic parallel between the import of this music and the “Your Country Needs You!” campaign that was just around the corner. Like some defensive reflex, scampering strings urgently stir the blood, whipping up a masculine, militaristic rallying-march, generating a ferocious – and fearsome – enthusiasm.
The scene cross-fades to a second subject which (as Elgar put it) “is like something you hear down by the river”. This whimsical filigree of feminine enchantment incites the resurgence of the bellicose first subject which, impatiently, gets going even before the second has quite “finished speaking”.
But the marching is more dogged – as if chastened by its grim purpose. Not so the “ladies”, who press forward in high excitement before catching themselves, as if suddenly realising an impropriety! As they regain their composure, icy tremolandi suggest encroaching apprehension: “white silk hankies waved as the men march off”, and indeed the militarist music recedes.
Following a “final wave” the spirit of the motto manœuvres the music towards a moment of inimitable Elgarian magic. I say “spirit” because, although we don’t actually hear the motto, its influence is palpable enough for us to believe that some subtle variant must be at work. If such elusive cunning seems improbable, don’t forget that it’s the author of Enigma we’re talking about, here!
3. Lento: The traditional “triumph over adversity” scenario’s slow movement is usually a “lament for the fallen”. Here, if we take the first movement to represent “threat and dismay” and the second “active response”, then this is surely the “vision of the cherishable”, seen through the eyes of those who must sit and await the outcome. It fits, being a set of variations on two alternating themes, one glowing like an English summer afternoon, the other like clouds obscuring the sun.
The “spirit of the motto” is transformed into a flowing theme of matchless, expanding beauty [2]. As this glorious exposition ends, a shadow clouds our vision, both without and within. Born of the first movement’s “cleansed” dancing motive, the lilting, rocking phrases of the second theme turn down within themselves, and stepwise descend the scale like falling leaves – omens underlined by the sombre tones of hushed brass, again darkly descending.
The progression, of three variations for each theme, seems to amplify both our cherishing and our fears. Thus the last variations find the first subject less fulsome, becoming submerged by the second. As the latter fades, the former appears once more – very softly, but now enfolding the feelings of foreboding.
4. Allegro molto: Rather like the Prelude to Act II of Siegfried, sustained tremolandi underpin the motto, mingling with the fretful shades of the main themes. A pregnant pause – and suddenly the movement leaps into life. Three shades gain substance in quick succession: firstly, strings juggle pairs of notes in canon. Secondly, over a tramping rhythm ‘cellos contribute a rolling tune to which a great arching phrase (also presaged in the introduction) seems to be related. Thirdly, an assertive and (again) militaristic march gets a big build-up.
The climax spills into development, a festive tumult in which a triplet phrase becomes detached from the rolling tune, to be tossed around the orchestra with joyous abandon. The “troops”, you might say, are back – and delirious about it! However, a sudden halt is called – the motto, cautiously questioning, seems to seek reassurance, and reassurance is forthcoming: a truly marvellous transformation of the militaristic march glows with visionary optimism.
Out of a climax of immense grandeur, the festive development resumes, blurring into a recapitulation that becomes apparent only when the rolling tune rolls back in. The reprise of the militaristic build-up bursts brilliantly into jubilation, the “troops” hoisting the wise and wary motto shoulder high. At first buffeted by the celebratory clamour, the motto heaves itself clear and, thus untrammelled, grandly proclaims victory. At this particular moment, who could argue with Richter?
© Paul Serotsky ¸ 2001
[1] Although England’s parochial concern was the integrity of its Empire, this problem was part and parcel of the upheavals, both artistic and political, that were increasingly convulsing the whole of Europe. It’s an interesting coincidence that England seemed to acquire its long-overdue, wholly original musical voice just at the “right” time.
[2] Following my impression from the end of the second movement, and bolstered by a clue or two from the phrasing, I am convinced that the motto itself has fathered this miraculous melody. Imagine my reaction, then, upon learning – long after first drafting this note – that the note-sequence of fully 13 bars of this theme is identical to that of the second movement’s “scampering strings”!

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


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