Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) - AnthonyPayne (b. 1936)
Elgar's last major completed work wasthe Cello Concerto Op, 85, finished on 8th August 1919. The death of his wifeAlice on 7th April 1920shattered him: he described himself as 'a broken man'. The music he wrote betweenthen and his own death on 23rd February 1934 was all on a small scale: the Severn Suite, the Nursery Suite,piano pieces, songs, and orchestral transcriptions. He did, however, embark ontwo major projects that never progressed beyond the stage of sketches an opera,The Spanish Lady, with a libretto by Sir Barry Jackson, Director of theMalvern Festival, based on Ben Jonson's play The Devil is an Ass (begunin 1929), and a third symphony On 7th January 1932 Elgar's staunch ally GeorgeBernard Shaw, who for years had been trying to persuade him to compose anothersymphony, wrote. 'Why don't you make the BBC order a new symphony? It canafford it.' A few months later Elgar was seriously considering Shaw'ssuggestion; on 29th June GBS wrote, on a postcard, 'Why not aFinancial Symphony? Allegro: Impending Disaster. Lento mesto: Stony BrokeScherzo: Light Heart and Empty Pocket. Allegro con brio: Clouds Clearing.'
Rumours started to spread. On 4th AugustWalter Legge, then Editor of the Gramophone Company's house magazine TheVoice, wrote to Elgar that he had heard, on what he believed to be 'veryreliable authority', that 'you have practically completed a third symphony'.Elgar promptly retaliated. 'There is nothing to say about the mythicalSymphony for some time, probably a long time, possibly no time, - never.' At a teaparty during the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester a month later Elgar was said, by the critic H. C. Colles, to havereferred to the symphony as 'written', but said it would be pointless 'tofinish up the full score since no one wanted his music now'. On 30th SeptemberShaw wrote to Sir John Reith, Director General of the BBC, reminding him thatin 1823 (actually 1822) the Philharmonic Society in London had offeredBeethoven ?ú50 for the manuscript score of a new symphony, and that in 1827 theSociety sent him ?ú100; he was dying and he said 'God bless the PhilharmonicSociety and the whole English nation.' GBS described this as 'by far themost creditable incident in English history' and suggested that 'the BBC, withits millions, could do for Elgar what the old Philharmonic did for Beethoven. Youcould bring the Third Symphony into existence and obtain the performing rightfor the BBC for, say, ten years, for a few thousand pounds. The kudos would be stupendousand the value for money ample.' The conductor Sir Landon Ronald acted asgo-between, and the formal commission, offering a fee of ?ú1,000, payable infour quarterly instalments, was made to Elgar in November. At a dinner in London'sGuildhall on 14th December, immediately after the last of three BBC concertscelebrating Elgar's seventy-fifth birthday (on 2nd June 1932), Ronald announcedthe commission publicly. The next day Fred Gaisberg, Recording Artists Managerof the Gramophone Company, wrote to Elgar about the possibility of recordingthe work immediately before or after the first performance (the following autumn?)but received an evasive reply, ending 'as to Sym. III - ?'.
Very little of the symphony, even in the form of sketches,seems to have existed at the time. On 5th February 1933 Elgar'sclose friend and biographer W .H. Reed (Leader of the London Symphony Orchestrafrom 1912 to 1935) made the first of many visits to 'Marl Bank', Elgar's housein Worcester, with his violin, to play through, with the composer at the piano,as much of the work as there was: sketches for the first movement, including atransition 'which I had to play countless times in every conceivable manner';the second movement, 'in place of Scherzo', of which 'he must have had the maintheme... (very light and rather wistful) in his mind for some years, as I haveseen it scribbled in his scrap books in various forms'; the slow movement,based on a 'broad, dignified and very expressive melody... [in which] heexhorted me to "tear my heart out each time we repeated it". I wasnever able to induce him to write down the continuation, but I was allowed toplaya bar or two (looking over his shoulder) from the fragments on one or twoother scraps of MSS. but I could never prevail upon him to divulge in whatorder they were to appear.' The finale was open to various possible readings,but 'he never played anything to show in what manner it should end, not evenimprovisation, but would leave off suddenly and abruptly when we arrived nearthat part, and say, "Enough of this; let us go out and take the dogs onthe Common." Also, he would be very restless and ill at ease, and wouldnot discuss the symphony any more, and it would be quite a while before hebecame calm and resumed his normal good spirits' Shaw and his wife Charlotte,Basil Maine (Elgar's first biographer) and Gaisberg were among the people towhom Elgar played (either by himself or with Reed) parts of the symphony, oreven possibly an attempt at all of it, often in conjunction with excerpts fromthe opera.
When the BBC's first cheque for ?ú250 arrived on 25thMarch, Elgar wrote to Reith. 'I am hoping to begin "scoring" the workvery shortly... up to the present the symphony is the strongest thing I haveput on paper.' On 27th April Adrian Boult's assistant, Owen Mase, wrote to Elgarasking if the symphony would be ready in time for the first concert in the BBCSymphony Orchestra's 1933-34 season, on 18th October. Elgar hedged once more, sayingthat no announcement about the first performance should be made at this stage.
Mase then suggested May 1934 as an alternative; Elgar, in bed recovering from'a sudden bad turn two days ago', wrote to say that he liked the idea. On 20thSeptember he had another 'bad turn', as a result of which he was told that hemust go to a nursing home to undergo 'some small operation'. As though he instinctivelyrealised the seriousness of the situation, he wrote, on 7th October, to Reith'I am not at all sure how things will turn out and have made arrangements thatin case the Symphony does not materialise the sums you have paid on accountshall be returned. This catastrophe came without the slightest warning as I wasin the midst of scoring the work. Perhaps it will not be necessary to referpublicly to the Symphony in any way at present; we will wait and see whathappens to me.' The operation revealed inoperable cancer and work on thesymphony ceased. As he told his physician, Dr Arthur Thomson: 'If I can't completethe Third Symphony, somebody will complete it - or write a better one - infifty or five hundred years.' On 2Oth November the faithful Billy Reed went tosee him. 'It was evident that he was trying very hard to speak; and graduallyand at long intervals the words came from him. "I want you... to dosomething for me the symphony all bits and pieces... no one no one... don't letanyone tinker with it... no one could understand. .I think you had better burnit.", Reed then said 'I don't think it is necessary to burn it: it wouldbe awful to do that. But Carice [Elgar's daughter] and I will remember that noone is to try to put it together. No one shall ever tinker with it" wepromise you that.'
In the last 42 pages of Elgar as I knew him (Gollancz,1936) Reed reproduced, in facsimile, many of the most important and substantialof Elgar's 127 pages of sketch