ELGAR’s SYMPHONY No. 2 in E flat
by Ian Lace
Acknowledgement is made to: ‘Edward Elgar, A Creative Life’
by Jerrold Northrop Moore and ‘Portrait of Elgar’ by Michael
Kennedy (both Oxford University Press.
Suggested listening excerpts are based on the timings of
the Teldec recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony by Andrew Davis
conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Teldec 9031-74888-2)
One hundred years ago this year, on 22nd June 1897, Queen Victoria
stepped into the telegraph room in Buckingham Palace and sent
a message to her subjects across the globe. She then joined
her Diamond Jubilee procession through the streets of London.
In this huge procession were representatives from every corner
of her empire. The British Empire was the largest in the history
of the world; comprising nearly a quarter of its land mass and
a quarter of its population.
Yet many people both at home and in the Empire felt that the
best was with them then or had even begun to pass. This mood
was caught by two artists: one a writer; the other a musician.
The writer, Rudyard Kipling, expressed it in his Jubilee poem
Recessional and the musician Elgar caught it in the upward
leaps and down-turning figures of his Imperial March.
Only two years later, British confidence was thoroughly shaken
by severe defeats in the Second Boer War. It was the beginnings
of Imperial retreat.
The tumult and the shouting dies -
The captains and the kings depart -
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
A humble and a contrite heart.
Far-call’d our navies melt away-
On dune and headland sinks the fire-
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!
Elgar’s Imperial March catapulted him to fame. It caught
the Londoner’s imagination in 1897 and made Elgar’s name well
He was then 40 years old. Behind him were his early choral piece
and one or two small orchestral works: Froissart,
Serenade for Strings, The Black Knight and King
Olaf. Ahead of him stretched: Caractacus, the Enigma
Variations and, in the first decade or so of the new century,
the majority of his greatest works including: The Dream of
Gerontius, The Apostles, the Kingdom,
and Cockaigne, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches,
In the South, Introduction and Allegro for Strings, the
Violin Concerto and the two symphonies.
England at the time of the Jubilee was thought to be “Das
Land Ohne Musik”. Even though we had composers of the calibre
of Sullivan, Stanford and Parry, none was considered equal to
their continental equivalents. Elgar was to change all that.
His music sparked what has been called the English Musical Renaissance.
The torch he lit was handed down to succeeding generations:
Vaughan Williams, Bax, Walton, Bliss, Britten and Tippett.
Elgar was born in the middle of Victoria’s reign. In fact he
was more Victorian than Edwardian and was brought up to observe
Victorian traditions and values. He was a tradesman’s son and
a Catholic. He suffered the social stigma that that position
brought. Indeed, when he married Caroline Alice Roberts, the
daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts, she
was cut by her Aunts for having married beneath her. But Alice
was the making of him. When she entered his life the music began
to flow; when she died in 1920 it all but dried up.
Elgar was self-taught. He read scores and books on musical theory
in the fields around Worcester and taught himself to play the
instruments in his father’s shop. He travelled by train early
in the morning on Saturdays to attend concerts at Crystal Palace.
In the early days of their marriage, in 1889-90, he and Alice
lived in London hoping for the breakthrough in his fortunes
that never came. However Edward used every opportunity to go
to concerts at the Crystal Palace. It was the equivalent of
his time at University. He soaked up all this music and used
it for his own ends. He was young enough to be open to all the
influences but mature enough not to let them overwhelm him or
suppress his individuality. Thus the unique Elgar style evolved
without being shaped by academic institutions.
It was not until 1908 that Elgar wrote his first Symphony. He
was then 51. He had made a number of attempts in previous years.
Often he was deterred by purely financial considerations because
there was no real demand for a symphony. The demand was for
choral works from the provincial choral societies that often
had huge choirs.
As early as 1898/99 he was considering a sort of Eroica
symphony about General Gordon, the colourful and eccentric hero
who had been martyred in the Sudan. Elgar had received a copy
of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, as a wedding
present in 1889. In it were copied underlinings and markings
that General Gordon had made in his copy which had been sent
out to him at Khartoum five years earlier.
Material that was eventually used in the Second symphony date
back even further to Elgar’s very early years. A little figure
of descending steps first conceived in his childhood was fashioned
into the music for the 2nd symphony’s closing pages. Another
theme from The Black Knight, composed in 1893, epitomising
the king’s grief became the motto theme of dying delight in
the 2nd symphony. Incidentally Elgar said of The Black Knight,
“I intended the work to be a sort of symphony in four divisions.”
It was something of a hybrid - part cantata and part symphony
because of the importance of the instrumental writing.
Elgar talked about writing a symphony in 1901 but nothing developed
and despite financial encouragement, he would not be hurried.
Early sketches proper for the Second Symphony date from 1903
and 1904 but first, of course, came the A flat Symphony - Elgar’s
First Symphony composed during the summer of 1908. “There is
no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great
charity and a massive hope in the future,” he said of it. It
had its first performance by the Halle orchestra under Hans
Richter to whom it was dedicated in the Autumn of that year.
Richter himself had said: “Let us rehearse the greatest symphony
in modern times and not only in this country.” The first London
performance followed four days later. Queen’s Hall was packed.
The applause at the end was tumultuous. It was a sensational
success. It put England back on top as far as symphonic writing
was concerned. It was played in America and in many European
countries. It received over a hundred performances in its first
year. It was performed everywhere that year. You could even
hear it being played in a London department store as you shopped.
The grand noble opening theme, the beautiful pastoral andante
and the stirring finale were greeted with rapturous acclaim.
Most of the work on the Second Symphony was done in 1910 and
1911. It was dedicated to the memory King Edward VII who died
in May 1910. His passing marked the end of an era. The romanticised
view of the Edwardian Age as being one golden garden party was
only partly true. It was a time of rapid change and upheaval.
Britain’s greatness was being challenged on all sides. We no
longer ruled the seas. Elgar had seen that at first hand in
1905 when he was in the Mediterranean with the British fleet.
Our European and American competitors - especially an aggressive
and ambitious Germany - were rapidly catching up with us in
technical innovation and commercial astuteness. There was clamour
for Home Rule in Ireland. The Suffragettes were protesting for
the vote. In December 1910, the Liberals were laying the foundations
of welfare-state socialism amid parliamentary opposition of
a bitterness never seen through the whole of Edward’s lifetime.
There was the constitutional crisis over the power of the Lords
and the Land Tax began to squeeze the rich. There was widespread
industrial unrest in 1911. World War I was only three years
away. All this tension was undoubtedly reflected in the new
Elgar admitted to his friends that the symphony symbolised everything
that had happened to him during the period of its composition,
April 1909 to February 1911 and that it was about people and
places he knew. At the end of the score - at the bottom of the
last page - is written Venice and Tintagel. In Venice Elgar
had been inspired by St Mark’s basilica and the square outside.
We will return to this a little later. Tintagel was associated
with his close friend Alice Stuart Wortley. She and her husband
liked to go to Tintagel at Easter, Whitsuntide and sometimes
in the summer. He had visited her there in April 1910. Her daughter,
Clare, recalled a walk they had enjoyed in the evening sunshine
when Elgar was impressed with the lyrical beauty of the countryside
and the coastline around Tintagel. Alice Stuart Wortley, known
to Edward affectionately as “Windflower”, was the daughter of
the pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Millais, and the second
wife of Sir Charles Stuart-Wortley, Conservative MP for the
Hallam division of Sheffield. “Windflower” was the inspiration
behind a number of Elgar’s works - principally the Violin Concerto
and this E flat symphony; note that it is in the same key as
Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
Elgar described his Second symphony as the “passionate pilgrimage
of a soul”. The score is headed by a quotation from a poem by
Shelley: “Rarely, rarely comest thou spirit of delight!” Elgar
wrote of it: “To get near the mood of the Symphony the whole
of Shelley’s poem may be read, but the music does not illustrate
the whole of the poem, neither does the poem entirely elucidate
the music.” What it does suggest is the music’s predominantly
restless and tragic character. It is a study in conflict and
paradox. Exuberance followed by depression; gregariousness followed
by withdrawal; optimism giving way to resigned fatalism and
a deep nostalgia for vanished times. Elgar quoted Shelley again
to describe his state of mind when he was writing the symphony
“I do but hide under these notes, like embers every spark of
that which consumed me”.
Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
’Tis since thou art fled away.
How shall ever one like me
Win thee back again?
With the joyous and the free
Thou wilt scoff at pain,
Spirit false! Thou hast forgot
All but those who need thee not.
As a lizard with the shade
Of a trembling leaf,
Thou with sorrow art dismayed;
Even the sighs of grief
Reproach thee, that thou art not near
And reproach thou wilt not hear.
Let me set my mournful ditty
To a merry measure,
Thou wilt never come for pity
Thou wilt come for pleasure,
Pity then will cut away
Those cruel wings, and thou wilt stay.
I love all thou lovest,
Spirit of Delight!
The fresh Earth in new leaves drest
And the starry night;
Autumn evening, and the morn
When the golden mists are born.
I love snow, and all the forms
Of the radiant frost:
I love waves, and winds, and storms
Which is Nature’s and may be
Untainted by man’s misery.
I love tranquil solitude,
And such society
As is quiet, wise and good;
Between thee and me
What difference? But thou dost possess
The things I seek, not love them less.
I love Love - though he has wings,
And like light can flee,
But above all other things,
Spirit, I love thee -
Thou art love and life! O come,
Make once more my heart thy home
Percy Bysshe Shelley
from: Last Love Poems (1821)
But to the music. The First Movement bursts on us exuberantly
in a seemingly endless profusion of themes. The spirit of delight
motif, the descending figure, is stated right at the beginning
in the second bar; it will reappear in many forms throughout
the work. Let’s listen now up to the point where the music slows
down and quietens.
EXCERPT 1 First movement Timing: 00:00 to 01:56
Now after all this energy is spent comes a second group of more
lyrical themes including a dulcet violin melody with horns quietly
commenting behind and a long cello theme tinged with remembrance
EXCERPT 2 First Movement Timing: 01:56 to 04:15
But this calm is soon to be shattered. The music, full of agitation
and anger builds to a huge climax where the percussion hammers
out all peace and serenity. Eventually when all this energy
is spent, the music winds down through slow marching chords
to a remarkable section at the heart of the movement. Elgar
described it to Windflower as a sort of malign influence wandering
through the summer night in the garden. He also wrote: “The
entire passage might be a love scene in a garden at night when
the ghost of some memories comes through it - it makes me shiver
...” Here is the section now; it begins serene and romantic
but then begins to be shot through with wisps of ghostly menace
which increase, recede and then reappear forcefully to shatter
the lovers’ dream.
EXCERPT 3 First Movement Timing: 06:54 to 10:30
There follows a march with trombones and tuba pp. This
rises to forte before it yields to the recapitulation. The movement,
like the whole work, is splendidly, richly orchestrated and
skilfully constructed. Elgar uses what Diana McVeagh has described
as a mosaic method of construction - a fragment of melody is
expanded or transformed into a new theme which the generates
another. Elgar uses great ingenuity in interlocking his material
and in sourcing it in a single germinal idea. He once said that
all the themes for a particular work come from the same oven.
But we must press on to the second movement. You will recall
I mentioned the association with Venice and St Mark’s Cathedral.
The opening of the second movement - the Larghetto is
an evocation of the interior of the basilica.
EXCERPT 4 Second Movement Timing: 00:00 to 00:37
Then follows a funeral march with its solemn, slow drum-taps
and heavy brass chords. The textures thin and the mood lightens
to an almost pastoral peace almost like a wistful colloquy between
two people before the mourning takes on the shape of an elegy
that grows ever more intense - a slow chromatic rise through
swirling strings to a blazing brass climax. This is music that
might have been used in a second Cockaigne Overture - City
of Dreadful Night. After the climax, the music subsides
and the main themes are repeated again. This movement is in
binary form - exposition followed by immediate recapitulation.
This time a lonely oboe threads its way beside the funeral cortege
against soft brass, harps and the timpani again sounding the
off-beats and bassoons and strings syncopating semiquavers in
slow motion. This oboe focuses on a private symbolism behind
Elgar is mourning not only Edward VII here but also a friend
who had died some years earlier. Alfred E. Rodewald was perhaps
the nearest to Elgar’s heart of all his many friends. Rodewald
was a textile magnate born in Liverpool. He lived for music.
He made the Liverpool Orchestral Society good enough to play
the works of Elgar, Richard Strauss, Wagner and Tchaikovsky.
He was a friend of Richter and supported Bantock’s New Brighton
enterprise. He and Elgar probably first met in 1899. Elgar often
stayed at his home and he gave Rodewald and his players the
first performance of the first two Pomp and Circumstance
Marches. The first (Land of Hope & Glory)
is dedicated to Rodewald. It was Rodewald who organised the
collection of money to buy Elgar his Cambridge robes and who
offered to commission a symphony from him. He died in the November
1903. Several months later Elgar made some sketches for this
Let’s hear a little of this now.
EXCERPT 5 Second Movement Timing: 07:14 to 08:00
Then the City of Dreadful Night chromatics rise again
through an even richer texture. As the summit of all this emotion
is reached and as the descent begins, just before the delight
motif sounds quietly again, it is like, in Elgar’s words: “a
woman dropping a flower on the man’s grave”. The music draws
quietly to a close as we sense the funeral cortege fading into
the distance. We’ll join the music as the City of Dreadful
Night music rises through to the climax and on to the end
of the movement.
EXCERPT 6 Second Movement Timing: 09:26 to end of movement
The opening of the third Rondo movement takes us back
to Venice. The inspiration is the Piazza San Marco, the square
outside St Mark’s. We have stepped out of the shadows of the
basilica into the dazzling sunshine of the piazza where clouds
of birds rise wheel and settle again and where Elgar had heard
the tune of some street musicians.
EXCERPT 7 Third Movement Timing: 00:00 to 01:10
After all this exuberance comes a pastoral echo of his earlier
symphonic poem: In the South
also called Alassio
EXCERPT 8 Third Movement Timing: 03:25 to 04:21
From this serenity the music grows ever more agitated until
we come to one of the most extraordinary outbursts in all music
- a relentless beating that Elgar used to describe to the orchestras
thus: “I want you to imagine that my music represents a man
in a high fever. Some of you may know that dreadful beating
that goes on in the brain - it seems to drive out every coherent
thought. This hammering must gradually overwhelm everything
- percussion give me all you’re worth. I want you to gradually
drown out all the orchestra.”
The quotation from Maud which is given below is apposite
too where the hero’s frustrated love turns into a fantasy of
his own burial.
Dead, long dead,
And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street,
And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
The hoofs of the horses beat,
Beat into my scalp and my brain ...
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
There is yet another significance. Elgar had been in Rome in
early 1908 working on the First Symphony when there had been
a General Strike and a public protest. The troops had been called
out and they had fired on the crowds. One man was killed. Shortly
afterwards Elgar came on the scene to see the piazza still occupied
by the troops and bullet holes in the walls. This had made a
deep impression on him - so this music could be an agonised
reaction to sudden death and possibly a recollection of his
agony at learning of the sudden death of Rodewald.
Let’s hear this horrific crescendo now:
EXCERPT 9 Third Movement Timing: 04:36 to 05:42
Afterwards the music returns to conflict between the first and
second subjects culminating in an ear-splitting stroke which
brings the movement to a close.
Now the First movement may be viewed as a conflict between past
and future, while the Second movement speaks of sorrow and remembrance,
and the Third of manic despair but the Finale turns to look
back over golden years that would never return. It is a movement
full of confidence, colour and aspiration. All the conflicts
and problems of the first three movements have been smoothed
The movement opens with this theme moving at walking or breathing
pace - life continues after all the drama of delight, sorrow
EXCERPT 10 Fourth Movement Timing: 00:00 to 01:20
This theme then merges into the next theme which Elgar named
Hans Himself. Hans is of course Hans Richter the conductor and
so another friendship is commemorated here. Richter was an indefatigable
supporter of Elgar. He had conducted many first performances
including The Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius
and the First Symphony. Illness had, by this time, caused him
to retire from the podium. This is Richter portrayed in typical
Elgar nobilmente mood.
EXCERPT 11 Fourth Movement Timing: 02:03 to 03:38
During the development, a contest develops between the Hans
motif and another plunging figure first noticed in the First
Movement. Suddenly a piercing trumpet call is heard which is
held through the bar. Interestingly, in the gramophone studio
the London Symphony Orchestra’s first trumpeter, Ernest Hall,
held this supreme note longer. When Elgar asked him why he had
done it, he said: “I was so pleased to get the note, I didn’t
like to leave it.” Elgar riposted, “I intended to write it so
but thought it would be too high to hold.” Let’s hear it now.
EXCERPT 12 Fourth Movement Timing: 04:56 to 05:33
The distinguished viola player Bernard Shore, principal viola
of the BBC Symphony Orchestra once said: “No other composer
has matched Elgar in fully exploiting all the orchestral instruments
and at the same time written nothing impossible. In this respect
Strauss sins so does Wagner; Elgar was unerring. I have found
that in Wagner extra instruments can almost always be dispensed
with without damaging the texture but when it comes to Elgar
it is quite different. There is hardly anything that could be
left out without leaving a hole in the texture.”
But the Second Symphony was not a success. The hall was less
than full. The admission prices were very high. People were
caught up in the excitement of the coronation of George V less
than a month away and they were expecting something glorious
from Elgar to celebrate the new king instead of Elgar’s questionings
and introspection. It was not until after the First World War,
when it was championed by Adrian Boult, that the Second Symphony
came into its own. In March 1920, Boult gave a magnificent performance,
revealing its full stature, to a much more appreciative audience.
Alice Elgar was just in time to hear it and share in Edward’s
delayed triumph. She died several weeks later.
Another reason why the 1911 audience were put off was the ending
of the symphony. Instead of an upbeat, the closing pages are
quiet and reflective. It comes after the final big climax which,
by the way, sounds magnificent if it also includes an organ.
The Spirit of Delight theme from the opening of the symphony
mingles with the simple descending steps figure that had first
occurred to Elgar in his childhood. High strings and soft woodwind
with the rich colours of central brass, slowly bring the work
to a radiant close. It is a golden sunset and a glorious farewell.
FINAL EXCERPT: Fourth Movement Timing: 11:09 to end of Symphony.