Above: Detail from Monet’s The Houses of Parliament, Sunset.
On November 29 and December 1 and 2, the Houston Symphony welcomes renowned conductor Edo de Waart to Jones Hall for a performance of Elgar’s noble and passionate Symphony No. 1. Learn more about this masterpiece and the context that inspired it in this post.
The Footsteps of Giants
After Beethoven, composing a symphony became a serious business. Anxious about comparisons with the older master, Brahms did not complete his First Symphony until he was 43 years old, famously saying “You have no idea how it feels to one of us when he continually hears behind him such a giant!” The English composer Edward Elgar would not complete his First Symphony until he was 51, after first attempting this most prestigious of musical genres ten years earlier.
In addition to the “giants” behind him, Elgar faced pressure as the first British composer of orchestral music to ever win widespread international acclaim. Despite Britain’s poets, novelists, painters, scientists, playwrights and sprawling empire, for nearly two centuries British musical life had been dominated by foreigners: Handel and J. C. Bach took up residence in London, and Haydn, Mendelssohn and Dvořák had all made significant visits (a young Elgar actually played violin in an orchestra conducted by Dvořák at a choral festival in 1884). The reception of Elgar’s First Symphony reflected not merely on himself, but on his nation, which had long been mocked by Germans as “das Land ohne Musik” (“the land without music”). Fortunately, the symphony was a resounding success from its premiere in Manchester on December 3, 1908, and was performed over 80 times around the world within the first year of its existence. With a masterful symphony to his name, Elgar could stand comparison with any of his continental competition.
Such success had been hard won, however; the son of a provincial piano tuner and music shop keeper, Elgar never enjoyed formal training at a conservatory and struggled in obscurity for many years before finding fame in 1899 with his Enigma Variations, a musical tribute to his wife and the close friends that had believed in him. Even after he had become a national figure and received a knighthood, money continued to be scarce for years to come, and Elgar suffered from periods of self-doubt and composer’s block.
Many have heard this struggle reflected in his First Symphony, a vast and deeply personal work full of grandeur, intimacy and intense emotions. Elgar’s only public statement about the meaning of his symphony was that “There is no program beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future,” although he privately dropped further hints to friends and musicians.
Musically, the work’s style is also highly suggestive. Influenced by Wagner, it is constructed of a web of interrelated leitmotif-like ideas, which in a Wagner music drama would symbolize characters, objects, emotions or other narrative elements. Its unusual harmonic structure and often intensely chromatic harmonies also show Wagner’s influence. Wagner, however, was not a composer of symphonies; faced with Beethoven’s legacy he felt that the symphony was an artistic dead-end and wrote music dramas (a.k.a. operas) instead. The adaptation of Wagner’s musical techniques to a symphonic structure made this a thoroughly modern work at the time of its premiere.
The Ideal Call
After two low, ominous timpani rolls, the symphony begins with an introduction marked “Nobilmente e semplice”—“Noble and simple”:
The composer of the famed Pomp and Circumstance marches introduces a stately theme that he described in a letter to a friend as “simple &, in intention, noble & elevating…the sort of ideal call (in the sense of persuasion, not coercion or command) & something above everyday & sordid things.” By implication, the “everyday & sordid things” follow soon after when the tempo quickens and a new theme, marked “appassionato,” begins the main body of the movement.
Elgar emphasizes the gulf between the worlds of the introduction and the rest of the movement with an unusual key structure: though the symphony is nominally in A-flat major, the key in which it begins and ends, most of the work is centered on D, the most harmonically distant note from A-flat possible (A-flat and D form a tritone, the interval known as “the devil in music”). The passionate new theme, torn between D minor and A minor, begins a sweeping, emotional first movement.
A sighing melodic idea leads the transition to the contrasting second theme, a delicate, lyrical melody. The appassionato theme then returns, but is interrupted by an ominous, fateful motif for brass. The music dies away to the quiet return of the noble “ideal call” from the introduction, which begins a lengthy and intense development full of fantastical and dramatic turns. Just the beginning of the ideal call returns quietly, divided between solo horn and cello, before the reprise of the movement’s turbulent main themes. The ideal call reappears once more at the end of the movement, at first only played by the last desks of the string section amid fragmentary reminiscences of other themes. “I have employed the last desks of the strings to get a soft diffused sound,” Elgar explained. “The listener need not be bothered to know where it comes from—the effect is of course widely different from that obtained from the first desk soli: in the latter case you perceive what is there—in the former you don’t perceive that something is not there—which is what I want.” The movement ends with a quiet reminiscence of the fateful motif, which nevertheless resolves to an A-flat major chord.
Marches and Hymns
The second movement begins with a furious rush of notes for the violins, which lead to an imperious march. The brash character of this march contrasts starkly with that of the ideal call that ended the previous movement. It soon leads to a more gentle, contrasting second theme. Elgar’s friend, W. H. Reed, recalled a telling episode about this contrasting theme in his memoirs. During a rehearsal, Elgar stopped the musicians at this passage: “‘Don’t play it like that: play it like’—then he hesitated, and added under his breath, before he could stop himself—‘like something we hear by the river.’” Elgar was always more at home in the countryside than in the city, and the remark about the river may be linked to childhood memories of growing up in the Malvern Hills.
The two themes alternate and interact until the music dies away, fading seamlessly into the slow third movement. This movement in particular moved early listeners; the audience called for him to appear after its first performance. Interestingly, the notes of first six measures of the tender theme that begins the movement are taken exactly from the fast violin runs that began the second movement. A more delicate, lightly orchestrated transitional passage introduces a short, despondent, descending idea, before leading to a second, singing melody in the violins. The cellos and violas take it up, but the despondent idea intervenes. The two melodies are reprised in varied form, but again the second theme leads to the despondent idea.
This time, however, a new theme emerges to answer it in an extended coda. Marked “Molto espressivo e sostenuto” (“Very expressive and sustained”), this theme recalls the famous “Nimrod” variation from the Enigma Variations, which was inspired by Elgar’s friend and publisher, August Johannes Jaeger. As Elgar was writing the symphony, Jaeger was dying of tuberculosis. Above a sketch for the theme, Elgar wrote Hamlet’s last words: “The rest is silence.” Despite his ill health, Jaeger managed to attend the London premiere of the symphony. Of this movement he wrote to Elgar, “My dear friend, that is not only one of the very greatest slow movements since Beethoven, but I consider it worthy of that master…The music was written by a good pure man.”
The slow introduction of the finale begins with a reminiscence of a strange, mysterious idea from the development of the first movement before introducing a dark march for bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Once again played by the last desks of the strings, the ideal call briefly reappears. These three ideas interact, until the tempo suddenly accelerates as a slashing new theme begins the main body of the movement. This soon leads to a strutting, heroic melody in the violas and cellos (likely an homage to the second theme from the finale of Brahms’ Third, a symphony Elgar greatly admired).
The development begins with the return of the dark march from the introduction, which struggles with the movement’s other themes until the ideal call returns again, transforming the dark march into a dreamy, lyrical melody. A reprise of the movement’s other themes cuts short this reverie, and the dark march returns in its original guise, plunging the music back into turmoil. Suddenly, the ideal call returns, this time as an ecstatic “Grandioso” played by the full orchestra. Combined with the strutting, heroic theme, the ideal call brings the symphony to a resounding, uplifting conclusion full of “massive hope for the future.” —Calvin Dotsey
Don’t miss Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 on November 29 and December 1 and 2, 2018! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.