Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Wand of Youth Suites Dream Children Nursery Suite
Sir Edward Elgar occupies a strange position in his owncountry. For many he is associated with British, or, more specifically, EnglishImperialism, epitomized in Land of Hope and Glory, a patriotic anthem now sungwith gusto and tongue in cheek on the last night of the London PromenadeConcerts each year. The image of an Edwardian country gentleman, with his dogsand horses is misleading. Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper, in the days whento be in trade marked a man for life and escape from this background earned aman the name of counter-jumper. He married the daughter of a retired IndianArmy general, a pupil of his, nine years his senior, and it was she who gavehim the necessary support, morally and socially, that finally helped him tomake his way in Edwardian society. Nevertheless, musically Elgar was far nearerto the German romantic composers of his time than to the developing vein ofEnglish music, with its pastoral reliance on newly collected folk-song.
Edward Elgar was born near Worcester, in the West ofEngland, in 1857. His father was a piano-tuner, organist, violinist andeventually a shopkeeper, and it was from him that Elgar acquired much of hismusical training. He at first made his living as a free-lance musician,teaching, playing the violin and organ, and conducting local amateur orchestrasand choirs. His first success away from his own West Country, after earlierabortive attempts, was in 1897 with his Imperial March, written for the royaljubilee celebrating sixty glorious years of Queen Victoria. His reputation wasfurther enhanced by the so-called Enigma Variations of 1899. The oratorio TheDream of Gerontius, which followed in 1900, was less successful at its firstperformance in Birmingham, but later became a staple element in British choralrepertoire. His publishers Novello had not always been particularly generous intheir treatment of him, but he came to rely on the encouragement of theGerman-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader for the firm, who found inElgar's music something much more akin to the music of his native country.
Public recognition brought Elgar many honours, his positionsealed by the composition of music for the coronation of King Edward VII. Hewas awarded honorary doctorates by universities old and new and in 1904received the accolade of a knighthood. Later official honours included theOrder of Merit in the coronation honours of 1911 and finally, in 1931, abaronetcy. Acceptance, as represented by the musical establishment of thecountry, was confirmed by the award of the Gold Medal of the Royal PhilharmonicSociety in 1925, after an earlier award to Delius.
Elgar's work had undergone significant changes in the lateryears of the 1914-18 war, a development evident in his Cello Concerto of 1919.His wife's death in 1920 removed a support on which he had long relied, and thelast fourteen years of his life brought a diminishing inspiration and energy inhis work as a composer, although he continued to meet demands for hisappearance as a conductor in both the concert-hall and recording studio. Hedied in 1934.
It was in 1907 that Elgar turned his attention tocompositions on which he had worked in childhood, notably music for achildren's play to be performed in the family with his brothers and sisters. Theplay contrasted age and youth, with the latter trying to persuade the twoadults that fairyland offered more than the conventional world in which theylived. From this early material he drew two suites. The first of these had itspremi?¿re at the Queen's Hall in London under Sir Henry Wood in December thatyear and the second suite was first given at the Worcester Festival inSeptember 1908, conducted by the composer. The Wand of Youth provided a sourcein 1915 for some of the music that accompanied Violet Pearn's play StarlightExpress, based on a novel by Algernon Blackwood.
Suite No.1 starts with a lively Overture in the unmistakablemusical language of the adult Elgar. The Serenade opens with an attractiveclarinet melody. The E minor Minuet, in the old style, marks the entrance ofthe two old people, the adults of the original play. The mood changes at oncewith the spirited Sun Dance. Fairy Pipers has the stage direction 'Two fairypipers pass in a boat, and charm them to sleep'. Here there is a gently liltingmelody for two clarinets, framing two passages for strings. This proveseffectively somniferous and is followed by Slumber Scene, scored for mutedstrings, two bassoons and French horn. Fairies and Giants, derived from aHumoreske dated 1867, was of later use in Starlight Express. The illustrativenature of the music is clear.
The solemn G minor March that starts Suite No.2 had formedthe ending of the children's play. It is followed by The Little Bells, a littlescherzo, with appropriate tintinnabulation from the glockenspiel and an E flatbell. The dance Moths and Butterflies has a charm of its own and was describedby the composer as the oldest of the movements. It leads to Fountain Dance,with its muted strings, the first violins divisi. The Tamed Bear, with itstraditional dance pattern, is contrasted with the final Wild Bears, in whichthe animals are allowed their freedom.
The two movements of Dream Children were written in 1902,again suggesting a certain nostalgia for childhood. The score is headed by aquotation from Charles Lamb's Dream-Children, a Reverie: 'And while I stoodgazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, andstill receding till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in theuttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed on me theeffects of speech: \We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children atall.*** We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what mighthave been."' Dream Children seems to have been a re-working of earliermaterial, written, as Elgar explained, 'long ago and sketched a few yearsback'.
The first of the idylls, originally with the title SorrowfulChild's Suite, starts with the gentle sound of two clarinets in thirds, theopening key of G minor leading to a brighter E flat major, before the return ofthe initial reverie with pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons. The stringsare again muted in the second of the two pieces, in which a clarinet takes theinitial lead. There is contrast in slightly slower passages in a deeply feltwork that often seems akin to Grieg or Tchaikovsky in elegiac mood.
In his Nursery Suite of 1930 Elgar returns for the last timeto childhood. Dedicated to the Duke and Duchess of York and their children,Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, it was first performed at arecording session in May 1931, conducted by the composer. The opening Aubadeprovides a gentle awakening and includes a quotation of the children's hymnHear Thy children, gentle Jesus. The Serious Doll brings a flute solo,returning in increasingly elaborate form after the brief melodic interventionof the oboe. Busy-ness lives up to its name, even more so with the rapidlyrepeated notes of its secondary theme, and The Sad Doll is a melancholy waltz,opening with muted strings and leading to a brief passage for solo violin. TheWagon (Passes) marks the slow approach of the lumbering wagon, drawing near andthen moving away into the distance. The ebullient Merry Doll bursts into laughterand jumps around, while Dreaming, for muted strings, finds the child gentlysleeping. The Envoy is introduced by a violin cadenza, as the composer leadsthe way to the return of the serious doll, and then, after the intervention ofthe viol