Elgar (1857-1934) – Symphony No. 1 [1082 words]
“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 modern symphonies by Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Bruckner – exaggerating? Well, maybe, but not by much, considering the circumstances – which led Michael Kennedy to conclude, “This was not only Elgar’s first symphony, it was England’s.”
For many years England had been “the Land without Music”; harsh words, but true. Admittedly, 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 – England sorely lacked front-runners.
Then along came Elgar, dishing up roast beef and veg. liberally laced with tongue-toasting English mustard. His pièce de résistance (thus far) was this symphony, which was right up with the avant-garde. Am I exaggerating? Well, compare it with Mahler’s contemporary Seventh, and ask: aren’t the “trees”, the comfy nobilemente of Elgar’s popular public gestures, obscuring the “wood” of his personally expressive music?
The early Twentieth Century saw the British Empire’s “Rock of Ages” cracking and crumbling . A growing general unease was felt most acutely by the hyper-sensitive nerve-endings of the artistic. Thus, we can imagine someone conceiving a symphony as a “mission statement”, reminding people of what they might lose, their Empire-building “bulldog” spirit, and their track record.
If that someone was anyone, it was Elgar. Froissart (1890), Enigma Variations (1899), Cockaigne (1901) and Alassio (1904) demonstrate his tremendous talent for bold, colourful expression. Indeed, there’s some stylistic affinity with Strauss, ruler of that particular roost. Cockaigne and Introduction and Allegro (1905) exemplified a Brahms-like solid craftsmanship and formal ingenuity. Finally, there’s his vast experience of dramatisation, acquired through a magnificent line of oratorios and cantatas, culminating in The Kingdom (1906).
His CV was spot-on, he had the motivation, the time was ripe – and Elgar delivered the goods. Over 100 performances in the work’s first year hinted that he’d struck a singularly resonant chord, one whose relevance has reverberated down through the years. The secret of its success lies less in the subject-matter – the time-honoured “triumph over adversity” – than in the way it’s handled. Rather than dolling up four symphonic poems, Elgar first and foremost composed a symphony. Nevertheless, the drama remains more involving than anything on stage or screen. How come?
Typically, composers represent opposing ideas by contrasted themes, resulting in relatively cut-and-dried views of conflict. By representing some opponents as sides of the same thematic coin, and sidestepping explicit “battles” in favour of generally overlooked, subtler aspects (see Lento), Elgar’s drama gains a distinctly psychological edge.
The introduction is impressive with intent – intent to impress on us a crucial theme. Much more than a mere motto it represents, not the expected “conquering hero”, but a “wise elder”, fertilising the fabric of the entire work .
That’s a long-standing mould gone for a burton – so, was Richter’s claim justified?
1. Andante nobilemente e semplice – Allegro: Elgar’s motto (E) awakens, initially reserved then resonating confidently. The buoyant, athletic first subject links 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, E creeps among the ruins, its bewilderment subsequently heightened by chimerical scoring. The second subject group gets panicky, then subsides into exhausted disquiet. E returns, subdued – but questioning.
Increasing activity coalesces into the reprise. Both main subjects show signs of shaken self-assurance, underlined by the unabated ferocity of that infernal apparition.
But, the ensuing coda’s fleeting, anxious visions are allayed by E, growing in fortitude, reaching a climax of immense resolve. Although anxiety is not dispelled (“resolve” is not “resolution”!), the gloaming brings a wonderful whisper of hope: E invokes a magical modulation onto the dancing motive – cleansed of all corruption.
2. Allegro: Think, “Your Country Needs You!” Like some defensive reflex, scampering strings urgently stir the blood, whipping up a fiercely enthusiastic rallying-march. Sounding (as Elgar put it) “like something you hear down by the river”, the second subject’s whimsical, feminine filigree incites the impatient resurgence of the bellicose first subject.
Now the marching is dogged, chastened by its grim purpose. Not so the “ladies”, who press forward excitedly before, realising their impropriety, catch themselves. Hopes and fears bubble up; silken hankies wave the men on their way. Meanwhile, the spirit of E  manœuvres the music towards . . .
3. Lento: The standard “triumph over adversity” scenario’s slow movement is a “lament for the fallen”. Elgar instead conjures a “vision of the cherishable”, as seen by those who must sit and wait, through variations on a “verse” glowing like a summer afternoon and a “refrain” that obscures the sun.
The “spirit of E” transmutes into a flowing theme of matchless, expanding beauty . As this glorious “verse” ends, shadows cloud our sight, both without and within. The “refrain’s” lilting, rocking phrases – born of the “cleansed” dancing motive – turn down within themselves, falling stepwise like autumn leaves, omens underlined by the hushed, darkly descending brass.
The three variations progressively amplify both our cherishing and our fears. Thus the final variation finds the “verse” less fulsome, becoming submerged by the “refrain”. As the latter fades, the former reappears – very softly, but now enfolding the feelings of foreboding.
4. Allegro molto: Sustained tremolandi underpin E and its offspring, a great arching phrase, mingling with fretful shades of themes to come. A pregnant pause – and the movement leaps into life. Three shades quickly gain substance: strings juggle pairs of notes, cellos contribute a rolling tune, and an assertive, militaristic march gets a big build-up.
The climax spills into development, a festive tumult wherein a triplet phrase, detached from the rolling tune, is tossed around the orchestra with joyous abandon. The “troops”, you might say, are back – and delirious about it! However, a sudden halt is called. E, cautiously questioning, seeks reassurance. It is granted, via a radiant transfiguration of the march.
Following a climax of immense grandeur, festivities resume. Recapitulation becomes obvious only when the rolling tune rolls back in. This time, the militaristic build-up spills brilliantly into jubilation, the “troops” hoisting the wise and wary E shoulder-high. Buffeted by the celebratory clamour, E heaves itself clear and, thus untrammelled, grandly proclaims victory. At this particular moment, who could argue with Richter?
© Paul Serotsky 2001, 2010
 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.
 Although it does so occasionally, E’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.
 I use the term “spirit of E” because, although we don’t actually hear it, E’s 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.
 By the same token as , and bolstered by a clue or two from the phrasing, I am convinced that E has fathered the theme of the Lento. Imagine my reaction, then, upon learning that the note-sequences of fully 13 bars of this theme and of the second movement’s “scampering” violins are practically identical!
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.