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Elgar and the Great War: The Spirit of England. Op. 80
by John Quinn

Monday the fourth of August, 2014 seemed a particularly appropriate day to sit down to listen to the various recordings of The Spirit of England and to attempt to draw together some thoughts on this unfairly neglected choral work which I believe deserves to be ranked among Elgar’s finest.
The First World War affected Elgar deeply. At the age of 57 he was too old for active service but it is clear that he wanted to ‘do his bit’. On 17 August, within days of the declaration of war, he was sworn in as a Special Constable and in April 1915 he enrolled in the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve. Though he seems to have taken his duties seriously in both these capacities, inevitably it was as a composer that he was able to make his biggest contribution to the war effort.
During the course of the conflict most of the music he composed was linked in some way or other to the war. For example, moved by the plight of German-occupied Belgium, he wrote three pieces – Carillon, Le Drapeau Belge and Une Voix dans le Désert - in which he provided music to accompany the recitation of patriotic texts by the Belgian poet, Emile Cammaerts. These pieces and other wartime scores by Elgar are usefully collected together on Dutton Epoch disc (review). In a very different vein, to provide pure escapist entertainment, he composed a substantial amount of incidental music for a rather twee play, The Starlight Express. The play was not a success though much of Elgar’s music is good and deserved a better context, as Sir Andrew Davis proved not long ago with his splendid recording (review). However, without doubt his most substantial war-related piece was The Spirit of England.
For many in the Britain the war began as a glorious, heroic adventure with men rushing to join the colours, though some historians have argued persuasively that men from the lower classes might have been motivated by a desire for some adventure in their humdrum lives and an escape from the very poor living conditions that many endured. However, even though, thankfully, battlefield scenes could not be beamed into every home by the medium of television, as they are today, the mood changed fairly quickly as the casualties began to mount inexorably. In a sense Elgar’s music in Spirit of England reflects that mood change very accurately. Had he composed it towards the end of the war or after it had finished one might argue that over its three movements the work almost charts and follows the Home Front perceptions of the war. So, the first movement, ‘The Fourth of August’ depicts the optimistic, patriotic spirit in which Britons embarked on the war; ‘To Women’ reflects the poignancy of the impact on the home front of the mounting toll of casualties; and ‘For the Fallen’ depicts the tragic reality of the sacrifices demanded by war. However, the reality is slightly different.
In the first place, the poems that Elgar chose to set were all written very early in the conflict. The author was Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) who included the three poems in question as part of a collection of his poetry entitled The Winnowing Fan. This volume was published in late 1914. So Binyon’s poems were written in the first months of the war, before the true horror of events on the Western Front became apparent. Furthermore, unlike poets such as Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, Binyon was not writing from a front-line perspective: like Elgar, he was too old for military service.
In 1914 and 1915 respectively Elgar produced a couple of patriotic works, Carillon, Op. 75, and Polonia, Op. 76 which paid tribute to two allied nations, respectively Belgium and Poland. However, these are very slight and rather bombastic works by comparison with his one great wartime masterpiece, Spirit of England, which, unlike those other two pieces, was written over time and not without difficulty.
Elgar completed the second and third movements, ‘To Women’ and ‘For the Fallen’ mainly in 1915 and these were first performed in 1916. However, the first movement, ‘The Fourth of August’, was a much more challenging proposition. At first Elgar was disinclined to set the poem for he had heard that his publishers, Novello, were planning to publish a setting of the same text by Cyril Rootham. Eventually Elgar was prevailed upon to compose a setting, much to Rootham’s distress. Elgar’s reluctance to trump Rootham was one reason for the delay in setting the poem but there was another issue. Elgar’s biographer, Michael Kennedy has pointed out that the lines beginning ‘She fights the fraud that feeds desire on lies’ caused Elgar great difficulty. Even in 1915 he could not forget the great consideration and understanding that had been shown to him and to his music in pre-war Germany. He found it hard to credit that what he regarded as a highly civilised nation had fallen so far from grace. However in the end he despaired of the Germans and came to feel that their conduct of the war was beyond redemption. Tellingly, he resolved his compositional and emotional dilemma by quoting in his setting of those particular words his own music from the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius. This is the only quotation from another of his works in Spirit of England yet the three movements themselves are linked by several thematic cross-references.
On the face of it much of the music of ‘The Fourth of August’ is surging and confident, its mood conditioned by the inclusion of the word “splendour” in the very first line of the poem. However, even when at his most outwardly confident - in the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto, for instance - Elgar was a deeply ambiguous composer. Here one does not have to dig too far below the surface to detect darker emotions; just as in the first movement of the Second Symphony there are turbulent currents beneath the surface confidence. So the surging orchestral figure which is heard at the very outset and which is so prominent throughout the movement finds a much more sombre echo in the next movement.
‘To Women’ is a deeply poignant piece that is concerned with the sacrifices on the Home Front. The juxtaposition of this poem and ‘The Fourth of August’ and the order in which Elgar places them mirrors accurately the change in attitudes towards the war that had gradually taken place during the first 18 months or so of the conflict as the casualty lists grew ever longer. Especially moving is the conclusion of ‘To Women’ where, as the soloist sings ‘But not to fail’, the orchestra reminds us of the principal motif of ‘The Fourth of August’. Then the choir’s closing phrases hint at music that will be revealed finally at the climax of ‘For the Fallen’.
The first two movements contain some great music but the setting of ‘For the Fallen’ shows Elgar at his most inspired. Here is music which does not so much tug at the heartstrings as wrench them. The movement opens in subdued vein with the orchestra revisiting music from ‘To Women’. At the words ‘Solemn the drums thrill’ Elgar builds a magisterial climax to emphasise the nobility of death (‘august and royal’). At first hearing the quick march episode that follows may seem incongruous but it is a masterstroke. Elgar is taking us back to the jaunty mood of the early days of the war when so many young men went off to war, smiling in complete ignorance of the horrors that awaited them. More than that, Binyon is here writing of ghosts and Elgar’s music reflects that; though the tune is jaunty the strange countermelody played by the violins more than hints at something else. The lines ‘They shall grow not old …’ have become very familiar but Elgar set them when they were new-minted and this passage of the piece is all the more effective since the music is simple and understated. One odd feature is that in the Novello score Binyon’s line is printed as ‘They shall not grow old …’ It’s not clear if this is an error by the publisher or how Elgar set the words. All the recordings use the word ordering in the score.
The conclusion of the piece, beginning as the soloist sings ‘But where our desires are ….’ is overwhelming in its emotive power. The climax at the words ‘Moving in marches across the heavenly plain’ is quite brief but is one of the most intense in all Elgar. The broad choral lines, underpinned by orchestra and organ do, indeed, suggest the immensity both of the skies and of eternity. It is a deeply affecting passage after which the music subsides into the same subdued vein in which it began. ‘The Fourth of August’ lasts for about thirteen minutes but its emotional span is infinitely greater.
The score calls for either a soprano or tenor soloist. However, at both the partial première in Leeds in May 1916 (movements two and three) and at the first complete performance, which took place some 18 months later, both solo voices were employed. Over the years I’ve taken part in a number of performances in which the solo part has been split in this way with the tenor singing the second movement solo and this arrangement works well. However, in general it’s been more usual for performances to use only a soprano, though I attended a recent performance at the Three Choirs Festival at which only a tenor was used (review). That was interesting but on balance if only one solo voice is to be used I’d prefer a soprano, I think.
Is The Spirit of England Elgar’s equivalent of Britten’s War Requiem as one or two people have suggested? The parallel is tempting but I don’t believe it holds water. Elgar’s music is a very dignified and deeply felt memorial to those who fell in the conflict. However, his chosen texts are nowhere near as graphic as the Owen poems set by Britten. Crucially The Spirit of England lacks two elements that are present in War Requiem. Firstly, Elgar’s is not a work of protest in the way that Britten’s work is a protest against the horror of war. Secondly - and the two points are related - Elgar didn’t have the same exposure to the effects of war that Britten did. By the time War Requiem was composed the world had also endured the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the Korean War. Furthermore, the dread of nuclear war now hung over the world – not for nothing has one writer labelled the cathartic climax in Britten’s ‘Libera me’ “a ‘mushroom cloud’ moment”. Britten was aware of all this from media reports. Elgar, by contrast, was only able to learn about the war through the heavily censored press reports of the time, though as the war unfolded people back home got a clearer idea of the horrors of the trenches, not least through soldiers talking about their experiences when home on leave. While Elgar couldn’t be as well informed about the destruction of war as Britten The Spirit of England is a very sincere and emotional response to what the war was visiting on his country and its soldiers.
The recordings
There have been three commercial recordings of The Spirit of England. However, before considering them it’s worth noting a significant historic recording, even though this is of specialist interest only. This is an off-air recording of a broadcast of the work given on Armistice Day, 11 November, in 1938. The interest lies in the fact that the conductor is Sir Adrian Boult, who never made a commercial recording of the work, more’s the pity. The recording is incomplete: some short passages are missing from each of the three movements but the excisions are not major and one can get a very good overview of Boult’s performance. The recording suffers from quite a bit of surface noise and, inevitably, the sound has its limitations. Boult conducts the BBC Choral Society, who make a pretty decent job of the music, and the ‘BBC Orchestra Section B’. The soloist is Elsie Suddaby who is quite impressive in the outer movements but excessively histrionic in ‘To Women’. Boult’s speeds can be a bit on the broad side but this is a heartfelt performance and worth hearing. It’s salutary to reflect that within a year of this performance Britain had been plunged into war again. The performance is part of a three-disc set, Elgar’s Interpreters on Record, Volume 5, from the Elgar Society.
Before leaving archive recordings, that same set also contains another recording related to The Spirit of England. In 1920 Elgar was asked to provide a piece to be played at the unveiling of the Cenotaph in London on November 11 that year, the second anniversary of the Armistice. He arranged the last movement of The Spirit of England, ‘For the Fallen’ for chorus and military band. The piece, to which he gave the title With Proud Thanksgiving was, to be candid, less of an arrangement and more an act of butchery. The resultant piece was about half the length of the original with the solo role eliminated entirely. There were also some changes to the music that survived, principally the inclusion of new – and very inferior – music for ‘They shall not grow old …’ In the end the music was not played at the Cenotaph ceremony and the following year Elgar re-arranged the accompaniment for orchestra. It’s this version that’s included in the same Elgar Society set in a 1936 broadcast, recorded off-air. The performers are the Preston Cecilian Choir and the BBC Northern Orchestra under Crawford McNair. The sound is pretty ropey and the performance is lacking in polish so this is little more than a curiosity – and an example of a rare misjudgement on Elgar’s part.
The first recording of The Spirit of England was made in December 1976 by what was then the Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Alexander Gibson. This recording, coupled with the Coronation Ode, was how I first heard the piece. Originally issued by RCA it’s been available for some time now on the Chandos Collect label (CHAN 6574) and there’s also a download which was the subject of a brief review by Brian Wilson a couple of years ago. Though this was the first recording of the work that I owned I have to cast sentiment aside and say I can’t really recommend it. The choir sings well, though their words are often indistinct, and the orchestra makes a good contribution too. The acoustic of Paisley Abbey is pretty resonant but this adds to the grandeur of the work, as does the Abbey’s organ at crucial moments. Two factors weigh against the success of the recording, however. One is Gibson’s tempo selections. The speed is often excessively stately and that’s before we get to any of the passages where Elgar marks a slower speed for a few bars. The whole performance plays for 30:32 whereas both of the rival versions take just over 27 minutes. There’s no doubt that Gibson feels the music deeply but I just can’t live with his slow speeds which, frankly, are such as to bolster the case of those who decry Elgar’s music as pompous.
The second negative factor is the singing of the soprano soloist, Teresa Cahill. She offers opulent, often vibrato-rich tone but she simply tries too hard. I find her singing in ‘To Women’ too histrionic – her two rivals on disc are much more satisfactory, as we shall see. Worst of all, however, is her tendency to milk phrases. Many of the soloist’s phrases, especially in the outer movements, have markings such as allargando and many have a pause at their peak. To say that Miss Cahill makes a meal of these phrases would be an understatement though whether these were her interpretative decisions or Gibson’s – or the result of a pooling of ideas – is impossible to say. Whoever was responsible is immaterial; the result is that the music is pulled out of shape again and again. Frankly, listening is a trial at times and buyers should look elsewhere.
The Gibson recording was followed in October 1987 by an EMI recording in which Richard Hickox conducted the LSO Chorus and the Northern Sinfonia with Felicity Lott as the soloist. Unfortunately, I believe that this recording is currently only available as part of EMI’s big boxed set, Edward Elgar – The Collector’s Edition (review). However, it may still be possible to track down a single-disc copy. The commemoration of the centenary of the Great War may bring about a reissue: I hope so. I’ve always liked the Hickox recording, not least because Felicity Lott is my favourite among the sopranos who have recorded the work. In general Hickox is sound in his judgement of speeds though there are a few points where I wish he’d moved the music on a bit. One such is in ‘For the Fallen’ at the point where Elgar sets Binyon’s famous lines beginning ‘They shall not grow old …’ to use the word ordering in the score. A few bars into this passage, at the words ‘At the going down of the sun’ Hickox slows the speed. It’s true that Elgar’s music rather invites a slowing but it’s not marked in the score and it tends to sentimentalise the words. Most of the other conductors do the same thing – even Boult, usually so scrupulous in these matters. The one exception is David Lloyd-Jones, whose recording is discussed below. It must be said, though, that the few issues over tempo in the Hickox performance are pretty minor and he gets very good singing and playing from his forces. With good recorded sound this is a very recommendable version. I hope that if Warner/EMI do reissue this disc singly they will choose a more suitable coupling; the items on the original release had the appearance of a somewhat rag-tag assembly.
The last recording for consideration is the 2006 Dutton Epoch recording by David Lloyd-Jones with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which was reviewed by Michael Cookson when it was first issued. It’s now also available as a download (review). This is coupled with a much more appropriate selection of music than the Hickox; there are pieces by Gurney, Parry and others. One important distinction is that this recording divides the solo role with a soprano (Susan Gritton) in the outer movements and a tenor (Andrew Kennedy) in ‘To Women’. This arrangement works very well indeed not least because Kennedy sings excellently, bringing sincere expression and clarity of words and tone to his solo. Susan Gritton produces lots of big, generous tone and her words are much more distinct than has been the case on some occasions that I’ve heard from her, both live and on disc. Having referred to ‘big, generous tone’ I should hasten to say that she’s very sensitive indeed in her soft interjections in the passage ‘They shall not grow old …’ The choral and orchestral contributions are excellent throughout and Lloyd-Jones conducts with great empathy for the music.
So the Lloyd-Jones recording is a clear first choice though if the rumours of a recording by Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé forces prove to have substance – and I do hope this will be the case – then it may be necessary to revisit that verdict.
Elgar dedicated Spirit of England ‘to the memory of our glorious men, with a special thought for the Worcesters.’ At the end of the full score of The Dream of Gerontius Elgar wrote some lines of Ruskin, beginning ‘This is the best of me …’ He would have been quite justified had he inscribed the same words at the end of the score of Spirit of England for surely this eloquent and deeply felt work deserves to be ranked among the very finest that he wrote.