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Elgar's Second Symphony

The Edwardian age was prosperous; Britain, a great nation, was secure, wealthy, self-confident and unassailable, at least to all outward appearances. By the end of the first decade of the century however, central European life and culture was in a ferment with feint but already ominous signs of political upheaval and revolutionary ideas in intellectual circles. The psychoanalytical insights offered by Freud were reflected in the surrealist arts; the lid of Pandora’s box being lifted was never to close again. But England seemed secure from all this, safe in its isolation, protected by its sea-wall and the Royal Navy.

Not so on the continent where music could hardly remain untouched by such fundamental stirrings in society. Strauss and Mahler proclaimed, if in Mahler’s case somewhat unintentionally, the growing stature of Austro-German artistic and politico-philosophy. Only in far-off Scandinavia was there really a dissident voice: that of Sibelius, whose Fourth Symphony written in 1911, turned his back on the "cocktails of every hue and colour" perpetrated by the central European composers with their outrageous excesses, and offered instead "pure cold water". Nonetheless Sibelius in his own way commented on the decadence of things in this stark, perplexing symphony, now oddly enough, seen to have an unlikely parallel with a composer not to gain wide recognition for another fifty years or so: Anton Webern.

Elgar, on the other hand while not showing any evidence of being influenced by Mahler - still at the time virtually unknown in England - was a stalwart champion of Richard Strauss. It was after all Strauss who hailed Elgar as the "first English progressive composer". Elgar’s own melodic invention, contemporary harmonic idiom, Wagnerian development of ‘leitmotif’ (or leading-theme), but most of all thoroughly up-to-date manner of virtuoso orchestration had been inestimably influenced by Strauss; his last great orchestral score ("Falstaff" - 1913) was said to have been modelled on Strauss’s "Ein Heldenleben", Elgar came late to the notion of the symphony. In spite of the early success with the "Engima" Variations, his work up to this point had largely and inevitably been concerned with the great choral tradition of English music, "The Dream of Gerontius", "The Apostles", and "The Kingdom" being the means of achieving worldwide recognition.

In 1908 however, appeared the First Symphony in A-flat, dedicated to Hans Richter and first performed by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester on 3rd December. Elgar had said there was no specific meaning behind it "beyond a wide experience of human life … and a massive hope for the future". It seemed to epitomise the ideals of Edwardian England; its opening solemn march theme in many moods: calm, reflective, consoling, foreboding, eventually triumphant. The symphony was a huge success from the very beginning and won universal acclaim.

Less than three years later, on 24th May 1911, the year of Mahler’s death and Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, the Second Symphony of Elgar had its first performance at the Queen’s Hall, London, with the composer conducting the 130-strong Queen’s Hall Orchestra. It was a dispiriting occasion, the audience being very small and unexpectedly cool in its reception. Elgar was hurt and remembered it with bitterness even twenty years later. Now, however, there is not the slightest doubt about its stature and importance in the history of British music. It is dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, who had died while the work was in the early stage of composition. Its spiritual essence lies in the quotation from Shelley which heads the score: .... ‘Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!’... though many listeners have been puzzled to know which way to take this: it depends on one’s personal attitude towards Elgar’s music and the age it symbolises.

It begins with a magnificent, flamboyant gesture: supremely confident, imperial, noble and lofty in sentiment. As with the First Symphony though, there are undertones of self-doubt, conflict, insecurity and immense yearning. An episode in the first movement, an intense singing tune played by the cellos has a sinister quality which Elgar described as a "sort of malign influence wandering through the summer night in the garden", and - to those old enough to remember the summer of 1939 - so acutely seemed to recapture this mood just before the outbreak of a second world conflict, as indeed it might well have invoked in Elgar a similar premonition of what was so soon to come after 1911.

The second movement is a massive funeral march, said to have been occasioned by the untimely death of Alfred Rodewald, the Liverpool business-man and very accomplished amateur conductor who had been one of Elgar’s staunchest friends and source of encouragement. This march, however, has all the panoply of state mourning, bringing before one’s inner vision the picture of London and the funeral of the King himself. It is interesting to compare this with the not dissimilar funeral march, the opening movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, alike in essentials of funeral solemnity but so different in national character. With Elgar there is a "smiling through the tears" dignity and consolation absent from the frenzied agony of Mahler’s more forceful utterance.

The scherzo is buoyant, but of nervous energy and its central episode is a soul-searching return to the "malign influence in the garden" from the first movement, now presented in a fearful, awe-inspiring and utterly overwhelming nightmare: Elgar said it was the "horrible throbbing in the head of some violent fever" - as if one were being trampled underfoot by the thunderous hooves of horses charging into battle. It could also be the pounding, inexorable rhythm of a train bearing down on one in the dark such as is recalled by Alfred Noyes: … "Leap, heart, for the pulse and the roar, and the lights of the streaming train, that leaps with the heart of thy love once more out of the mist and the rain. Out of the desolate years, the thundering pageant flows, but I see no more than a window of tears, which her face has turned to a rose" … Thus the twentieth century with its threat of war-like machines might also have been an unconscious awareness in Elgar’s creative imagination.

The last movement returns to a more self-assured, almost complacent, theme. This is developed at length, sometimes with rather too much repetition and a deal of Elgar’s undue obsession with sequential patterns. The ending promises to be grandiloquent, an apotheosis re-affirming greatness perhaps, but slowly the realisation dawns on the listener that it is not to be. Instead it ends calmly and reflectively, but assuredly for all that, like some radiant sunset, with the promise of a fine day tomorrow? The true essence of this ending however was perhaps never more eloquently expressed than by the late John Barbirolli, who - from personal experience of the time, no doubt - quoted the famous saying by Viscount Grey of Falloden who, on the evening of 3rd August 1914 when war was imminent, said: ... "The lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime". Thus, the symphony, as it were, marked the closing of an era.

Arthur Butterworth

Arthur Butterworth Writes - a regular column
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