ELGAR: Symphony No. 1 / Imperial March (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/ Brian Pidgeon/ George Hurst) (Naxos: 8.550634)
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Edward Eigar (1857 - 1934)
Imperial March, Op. 32
Symphony No.1 in A Flat Major, Op. 55
The image of Sir Edward Elgar as an Edwardian gentleman,happier at the race- course or with his dogs than in the concert hall or with musicians issadly deceptive. Popularly associated with the heyday of British imperialism, through hisall too well known Pomp and Circumstance marches and other occasional celebrations ofEmpire that have lasted less well, he has seemed the musical epitome of a period inBritish history that it has become fashionable to decry. The picture is a false one. InEdwardian terms Elgar was a counter-jumper, a man of relatively humble origins, son of ajobbing musician who kept a shop in Worcester, and later the husband of an imprudent ifwell connected spinster, the daughter of a Major-General in the Indian Army and nine yearshis senior. As a Catholic in a largely Protestant and strongly prejudiced community, hemust seem very much less of an Establishment figure, whatever mask he may have chosen toassume as his fame grew.
Initial recognition was slow in coming. In 1890 the Elgarsmoved to London, but the following year retreated again to the West Country, taking ahouse at Malvern, allowing Elgar to return to his earlier activities as a provincialmusician, enjoying a merely local reputation. During the last decade of the century heturned his attention largely to the writing of choral works, designed for the flourishingchoral societies of his native region and of the North of England. It was the EnigmaVariations, completed in 1899, that first established his fame in London and, therefore,nationally. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius,which followed in 1900, was less successful at its first performance in Birmingham and thepublishers, Novello, were not particularly generous in their treatment of him, although hecame to rely on the encouragement of the German-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a readerfor the firm, who found in Elgar's music something much more akin to the music of his ownnative country. The Dream of Gerontius laterwon the place it retains in English choral repertoire, finely performed in Manchesterunder Richter and by 1904 proving acceptable to London critics, resentful, perhaps, of thesuccess of the work abroad.
Public recognition brought Elgar manyhonours, his position sealed by the composition of music for the coronation of KingEdward VII. He was awarded honorary doctorates by universities old and new and in 1904received the accolade of a knighthood. Later official honours included the Order of Meritin the coronation honours of 1911 and finally in 1931 a baronetcy. Acceptance asrepresented by the musical establishment of the country was confirmed by the award of theGold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1925, after an earlier award to Delius.
Elgar's work had undergone significant change in the later years of the 1914-18 war, adevelopment evident in the poignant Cello Concerto
of 1919. His wife's death in April 1920 removed a support on which he had long relied andthe last fourteen years of his life brought a diminishing inspiration and energy in hiswork as a composer, although he continued to meet demands for his appearance as aconductor in both concert hall and recording studio. He died in 1934.
Elgar completed two symphonies. A third was commissioned in1933 by the BBC at the instigation of George Bernard Shaw, but Elgar was only able toproduce sketches for the work, which was not completed. The Symphony No.1 in A flat majorwas written between the summer of 1907 and autumn 1908 and was first performed in the FreeTrade Hall in Manchester in December by the Halle Orchestra under Hans Richter, to whomthe symphony was dedicated. Richter conducted the first London performance by the LondonSymphony Orchestra at the Queen's Hall a few days later. The symphony was a very greatsuccess both with the first audiences and with critics and was performed widely both inEngland and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Australia and America. The nobility of the musicappealed at once, although Thomas Beecham was later to compare the work to the neo-Gothictowers of St. Pancras Station, a comparison that was not intended to be flattering, anymore than his apparently cavalier truncation of the work in performance. For most,however, the symphony had unmistakable signs of greatness about it, a quality recognisedequally in Germany, and certainly by Elgar's friends Jaeger, who died in May 1909, andRichter, described by the composer in his dedication as "true artist and truefriend". Elgar had first entertained the idea of writing a symphony in 1898, whenJaeger had suggested a work on the subject of General Gordon of Khartoum. The symphonywritten ten years later has no programmatic element.
The first movement of the symphony opens with an introductorytheme marked Andante, nobilmente e semplice, and is characterized by a classical mood ofnoble simplicity. The theme, related to and re-appearing in one form or another in w hatfollows, leads to an Allegro, with a restless and impatient first subject in D minorfollowed by a second subject group of four thematic elements, conflicting rhythmicelements of which he worked out in a long development section, followed by a relativelybrief recapitulation. The second movement Scherzo, in F sharp minor, a rapid and nervousfirst violin theme interrupted by a sinister march. The Trio section, in B flat major,with a violin solo worthy of Mahler. The solo violin re-appears after the return of theScherzo to introduce the final section of the movement. The D major Adagio, which broughtthe Manchester audience to its feet in enthusiastic applause at the first performance,follows without a break, transforming the first notes of the Scherzo into a long-drawntheme of singular beauty, its power to move increased by the re-appearance of elements ofthe noble, theme that opened the symphony. The final movement opens with a slow,introduction, in D minor, with hints of what is to come, its string sections divided andsubdivided. The following Allegro, with a principal theme marked risoluto and still in Dminor, ultimately settles the conflict that underlies the whole symphony when it leads tothe return of the original key, remote enough from the tonality of D that has held sway,and the poignant triumph of the first noble theme, employing the full resources of theorchestra.
Elgar wrote the ImperialMarch, Opus 32, in 1896 for the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of QueenVictoria in the following year. At the same time he worked on a choral composition, TheBanner of St. George, for the same year of national rejoicing. Both works were successful,and the March, first performed at the Crystal Palace on 19th April 1897 under thedirection of Sir August Manns, proved particularly acceptable to the general public,reflecting, as it did, the spirit of the age and of the occasion that it marked.
The BBC Philharmonic has come to occupy a leading positionamong British orchestras, distinguished by the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award forlarge ensemble in 1991 in recognition of its standard of performance and wide repertoirein broadcasting, concerts and recordings. The BBC Northern Orchestra was established in1934 in pursuance of the policy of providing regional orchestras and in 1967 became theBBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, in 1982 assuming the title of the BBC Philharmonic. Basedin Manchester, the orchestra has had a series of eminent principal conductors, includingSir Charles Groves, George Hurst, Bryden Thomson and Sir Edward Downes. Yan PascalTortelier was appointed principal conductor in 1992. The orchestra enjoys p