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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


ANCESTRAL VOICES - ELGAR SYMPHONY NO. 3

by Arthur Butterworth


The following article was first printed in the March 1998 quarterly journal of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra - ‘Philharmonic’ whose editor is the conductor Adrian Smith, 26 Rutland Road, Longwood, Huddersfield HD3 4RA phone/fax 01484 641677

ALTHOUGH too young and inexperienced to be able to recognise, much less to describe it at the time, probably most young children are deeply though unconsciously aware of some strange spirit of the times in which they pass through childhood. Tantalisingly, the older one gets, the more clearly such ancient memories can stir dreams and phantoms of the past, sometimes disturbingly so. In February, 1934, the month of Elgar’s death, I was ten years old; happy in the wonderful care and affection of my father and mother, although even then there were vague, indefinable anxieties of a kind all children must begin to feel. Apart from day-to-day little troubles - schooling, bullying, the instinctive challenges of competing with other children - there was the faintly-growing awareness, not realised as an infant, of the transitoriness of all living things.

Indistinctly I seem to recall my mother reading in the morning paper that the great composer Sir Edward Elgar had died. What could this mean to a ten-year old? I had not the slightest idea; the name meant nothing, although I think it was my father who later told me that he was the man who wrote that tune everyone sang on Armistice Night each year - Land of Hope and Glory. Nonetheless, those early 1930s had a mood and flavour of their own, which although perhaps described by politicians and social historians in hard and prosaic economic terms, had an aura quite impossible to describe: sometimes even a quiet ecstasy, but equally a touching, faintly melancholy tenderness that was never to return.

Not having recognised Elgar’s music at this tender age, how was one to know the effect it would have years later? - what incredible personal resonances would echo so disturbingly down the long years to come? The early thirties passed; almost without realising it, an ever-so-faint awareness of Elgar’s music imperceptibly began to make itself felt as one became involved with the art of music as a whole. Even so, beginning to attend orchestral concerts as a young teenager brought no sudden flash of revelation (my first hearing of the Introduction & Allegro at a Halle concert in Manchester made no impression at all). It was not until long afterwards - nearly a decade later - that a full realisation of what his music signified for me made itself almost painfully yet ecstatically clear. Yet to say so in print these days must seem like all-too-easily following the more sensational popular press’s obsession with delving into people’s most private and personal secrets; but it ought not to be surprising to suggest that this revelation about Elgar came about as an exact parallel with my own inevitably-burgeoning sexual maturity and awareness of human spiritual communication.

Notwithstanding the composer’s final impassioned plea not ‘to let anyone tinker with it’, to me, as to many others, the notion that Elgar had almost, but not quite, bequeathed to us a third symphony, has been tantalising indeed, and has often made one wish to be allowed to try to complete it. The very idea that there just might be another equally magic garden of ecstasy and delight for us to enter, there to be ravished in the same way as we have been by the first two symphonies must have been just too much of a yearning for many of us.

So, it has at last been acknowledged that sooner or later, despite the ethical and moral considerations implicit in a genuine and honest intention to honour the composer’s wishes, we - all of us - must desperately have wanted to know what these half-secret, long-hidden pages might be like when fully brought to life. Here, for the present, no ethical argument one way or the other is entered into: in hard, practical terms, there will inevitably be a date in 2004, when copyright runs out and the sketches will be open to all kinds of possibly mindless desecration. So, at this time let us simply thank Anthony Payne for an incredible and absolutely stunning resurrection of the spirit of Elgar: all lovers of English music owe him an incalculable debt.

No valuable purpose will be served by subjecting ‘The Sketches for Symphony no 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne’ (to give the work its full title) to the coldly analytical criticism of the kind so peculiar to dry musical academics, whose interest is musicology rather than actually going to concerts in order to be deeply moved by actual music-making. Let me approach the music, sideways, as it were, by returning to where I began this article.

I am not quite sure when first I heard the Second Symphony, but it must have been some time after 1945. There is a disturbing atmosphere about some passages in this symphony (remember Elgar’s own comment about ‘a malign influence wandering through the summer night in a garden’). Then there is that explicit passage in the scherzo where he hints at the ‘pounding of hooves, beating down upon one’. It was in such passages as these that I became uncomfortably aware of uncannily and vividly precise spiritual experiences, recalled on first hearing the pages of the Second Symphony, which awesomely evoked non-musical experiences of my own just before the outbreak of war in 1939. At the time I could not have foreseen that such very specific feelings would be recalled later by this music. Yet, comparing the situation of Elgar just prior to the First World War, when anxieties were beginning to threaten,they were almost identical to those of my generation of 1938-39. It seemed, in retrospect, as though what I felt in 1939 was foretold in Elgar’s music of 1911 with astonishing accuracy. The immensely fearful - yet paradoxically ecstatic - emotions so incapable of being expressed by a 16-year old in 1939 had been ever so startlingly recaptured on hearing this music by a composer of an earlier generation, who, eventually as one discovered, must have been in almost the same place geographically, at the same time of year (yet in an earlier era) and thus to have captured those feelings in exactly the peculiarly personal way I seemed to have had myself long before I had even heard his music. This of course is not new; it is one of the reasons why we find great music so compelling. What is astonishing is that, having assumed that music is not a precise language but merely something abstract, it can be interpreted by another person, in tune with the composer, as something so incredibly precise.

So, what of the Third Symphony? The technical substance, as has been remarked already, is so flawless as not to need comment: it sounds absolute Elgar. It might be of passing interest to identify traces of other composers, or search its textures for his own familiar stylistic fingerprints - melody, harmony, orchestration, form or whatever other feature interests us (if you are curious as to what such things might be, here are two personal ideas, selected more or less at random: to me the piece contains faint echoes of Faure - the Death of Melisande from the incidental music to Pelleas and Melisande - and perhaps not without significance - but maybe only because I hear it this way - the Death of Ase from Grieg’s Peer Gynt music).

Most of all, it is what it means to me emotionally; and this is where I have to say, for more or less the same reasons as those remarked about in respect of the Second Symphony, I find it disturbing - but in this case even more so. On first hearing this new evocation of Elgar I was so upset by it that I immediately decided I did not like it. Everyone else I spoke to told me how wonderful it was. I knew I should have to listen to it many times to get to know what it really signifies. Now, I feel this is already happening. However, I was not, I think, totally wrong in ‘not liking’ it. I am utterly convinced that the music itself is all that Elgar should be: but that, you see, is the point - it is precisely because it is such deeply-expressed music that I feel so disturbed by it. It conjures up for me long-since-forgotten emotions that I imagine must have been erased with childhood in the mid-1930s. Yet they cannot have been. Elgar himself, unconsciously but unerringly, had tapped the vein of the Zeitgeist of 1932-33, years which I, though a mere child of nine or ten, was nevertheless sharing with him as another person living at precisely the same time. As a child I could not have been intellectually conscious of what he must have known of those times, but like all children, perhaps I too must have had an unconscious awareness of the times, only now realised by Elgar’s long-hidden musical evocation of them.

The feeling is a trifle uncomfortable - it is like discovering faded family photographs from 60 years ago.

© Arthur Butterworth


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