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ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR: Symphony No. 1 / Imperial March
Elgar Society Journal
Edward Elgar (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 is sadly deceptive. Popularly associated with the heyday of British imperialism, through his all too well known Pomp and Circumstance marches and other occasional celebrations of Empire that have lasted less well, he has seemed the musical epitome of a period in British history that it has become fashionable to decry. The picture is a false one. In Edwardian terms Elgar was a counter-jumper, a man of relatively humble origins, son of a jobbing musician who kept a shop in Worcester, and later the husband of an imprudent if well connected spinster, the daughter of a Major-General in the Indian Army and nine years his senior. As a Catholic in a largely Protestant and strongly prejudiced community, he must seem very much less of an Establishment figure, whatever mask he may have chosen to assume as his fame grew.
Initial recognition was slow in coming. In 1890 the Elgars moved to London, but the following year retreated again to the West Country, taking a house at Malvern, allowing Elgar to return to his earlier activities as a provincial musician, enjoying a merely local reputation. During the last decade of the century he turned his attention largely to the writing of choral works, designed for the flourishing choral societies of his native region and of the North of England. It was the Enigma Variations, 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 the publishers, Novello, were not particularly generous in their treatment of him, although he came to rely on the encouragement of the German-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader for the firm, who found in Elgar's music something much more akin to the music of his own native country. The Dream of Gerontius later won the place it retains in English choral repertoire, finely performed in Manchester under Richter and by 1904 proving acceptable to London critics, resentful, perhaps, of the success of the work abroad.
Public recognition brought Elgar many honours, his position sealed by the
Elgar completed two symphonies. A third was commissioned in 1933 by the BBC at the instigation of George Bernard Shaw, but Elgar was only able to produce sketches for the work, which was not completed. The Symphony No.1 in A flat major was written between the summer of 1907 and autumn 1908 and was first performed in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in December by the Hallé Orchestra under Hans Richter, to whom the symphony was dedicated. Richter conducted the first London performance by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Queen's Hall a few days later. The symphony was a very great success both with the first audiences and with critics and was performed widely both in England and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Australia and America. The nobility of the music appealed at once, although Thomas Beecham was later to compare the work to the neo-Gothic towers of St. Pancras Station, a comparison that was not intended to be flattering, any more than his apparently cavalier truncation of the work in performance. For most, however, the symphony had unmistakable signs of greatness about it, a quality recognised equally in Germany, and certainly by Elgar's friends Jaeger, who died in May 1909, and Richter, described by the composer in his dedication as "true artist and true friend". Elgar had first entertained the idea of writing a symphony in 1898, when Jaeger had suggested a work on the subject of General Gordon of Khartoum. The symphony written ten years later has no programmatic element.
The first movement of the symphony opens with an introductory theme marked Andante, nobilmente e semplice, and is characterized by a classical mood of noble simplicity. The theme, related to and re-appearing in one form or another in w hat follows, leads to an Allegro, with a restless and impatient first subject in D minor followed by a second subject group of four thematic elements, conflicting rhythmic elements of which he worked out in a long development section, followed by a relatively brief recapitulation. The second movement Scherzo, in F sharp minor, a rapid and nervous first 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 the Scherzo to introduce the final section of the movement. The D major Adagio, which brought the 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-drawn theme of singular beauty, its power to move increased by the re-appearance of elements of the 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 and subdivided. The following Allegro, with a principal theme marked risoluto and still in D minor, ultimately settles the conflict that underlies the whole symphony when it leads to the 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 the orchestra.
Elgar wrote the Imperial March, Opus 32, in 1896 for the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in the following year. At the same time he worked on a choral composition, The Banner of St. George, for the same year of national rejoicing. Both works were successful, and the March, first performed at the Crystal Palace on 19 April 1897 under the direction 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.
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ELGAR: Symphony No. 1 / Imperial March