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ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR: Ave Maria / Give unto the Lord / Te Deum and Benedictus, Op. 34
Elgar’s sacred choral music possesses the same innate qualities so admired today in his orchestral music, namely an unerring sense for musical development and drama allied to a glorious ear for melody. This collection follows him from early settings for the Catholic liturgy, such as the three Opus 2 anthems written after he had succeeded his father as organist at St George’s in Worcester, right through to his heyday as the Empire’s bestknown composer, commissioned to write powerful settings such as Give unto the Lord for St Paul’s Cathedral in 1914. Great is the Lord of 1912 is considered his sacred masterpiece.
Penguin Guide Key Recording
BBC Music Magazine
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Sacred Choral Music
Edward Elgar was born near Worcester, in the West of England, in 1857. His father was a piano-tuner, organist, violinist and eventually a shopkeeper, and it was from him and from his own private study that Elgar acquired much of his musical training. As the son of a tradesman and a Catholic he had social and religious obstacles to overcome, and in this his wife, nine years his senior and the daughter of an Indian army general, was of the greatest assistance. He at first made his living as a free-lance musician, teaching, playing the violin and organ, and conducting local amateur orchestras and choirs. His first real success away from his own West Country was in 1897 with his Imperial March, written for the royal jubilee celebrating sixty glorious years of Queen Victoria. His reputation was further enhanced by the so-called Enigma Variations of 1899. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which followed in 1900, later became a staple element in British choral repertoire. His publishers Novello had not always been particularly generous in their treatment of him, but 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 native country.
Public recognition brought Elgar many honours, his position sealed by the composition of music for the coronation of King Edward VII. He was awarded honorary doctorates by universities old and new and in 1904 received a knighthood. Further honours followed and finally, in 1931, a baronetcy. Acceptance, as represented by the musical establishment of the country, was confirmed by the award of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1925. Elgar's work had undergone significant changes in the later years of the 1914-18 war, evident in his Cello Concerto of 1919. His wife's death in 1920 removed a support on which he had long relied, and the last fourteen years of his life brought a diminishing inspiration and energy in his work as a composer, although he continued to appear as a conductor in both the concert-hall and recording studio. He died in 1934.
In his early years in Worcester Elgar had been closely involved with the music of St George's Church, where his father served as organist, and therefore with the Catholic liturgy. It was for St George's that Elgar wrote early settings of Tantum ergo, Salve Regina, and Domine salvam fac. In 1885 he took over from his father as organist, but was not happy with the position and had little good to say of the choir. His work in the West Country as a violinist, conductor and organist continued until his marriage in 1889 and his attempt the following year to establish himself in London.
Elgar's first settings of the hymn 'O salutaris hostia', for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, date from about 1880. The setting in F major, included in a compendium of such works issued in 1898, is for choir and organ and is in the simple style favoured in Catholic worship for many years. The same might be said of the other settings, the first, an 'Ave verum', published in 1902, with three more such works issued in 1907. The 'Ave verum' itself was originally a setting of the burial service 'Pie Jesu', written in memory of William Allen, the Catholic Worcester lawyer for whom Elgar had briefly worked as a fifteen-year old, before music seemed to offer a possible profession. The composer arranged the work for publication in 1902 with solo and choral verses in alternation. The 'Ave Maria', the second of the group, dedicated to the wife of his Worcester friend and choirmaster with him at St George's, Hubert Leicester, is more musically substantial. It is followed by the Marian 'Ave maris stella', dedicated to the Benedictine Canon Dolman of Hereford. A treble soloist starts the work, the opening invocation echoed by the choir in a motet that, still in relatively simple terms, offers a subtler musical version of the longer text.
In 1891 Elgar and his wife decided to leave London, where he had had no immediate success, moving now to Malvern, from where he involved himself once more in the musical life of the region, while enjoying more time for composition. It was the Hereford Cathedral organist George Robertson Sinclair who commissioned Elgar's Te Deum and Benedictus for the Three Choirs Festival of 1897, canticles performed at the opening service. The work was dedicated to Sinclair. Scored for choir and orchestra or organ, the Te Deum is introduced by a characteristically Elgarian Allegro maestoso, leading to the emphatic declaration of the choir, 'We praise Thee, O Lord'. There is a change of mood at the words 'The Holy Church' throughout all the world, a phrase that is repeated in different voices, leading to a dynamic climax, followed by changes of key and rhythm at 'When Thou tookest upon Thee'. The original F major is restored over a dominant pedal at 'When Thou hadst overcome'. The familiar motif of the choral opening is heard again, and a great climax is succeeded by a hushed plea for mercy, a strong statement of trust in the Lord, and a gentle prayer for salvation, before the final postlude. The Benedictus seems to start in A minor, before F major is re-established. The final triumphant doxology is introduced by the return of the organ to the Allegro maestoso of the first canticle, assuring the thematic unity of the two canticles.
Elgar's first oratorio was The Light of Life, its original title Lux Christi replaced at the publisher's insistence, to avoid possible religious prejudice. The work was based on biblical texts assembled by Edward Capel Cure, who had served as an Anglican curate in Worcester and, as an amateur cellist, played chamber music with Elgar. The new work was a commission for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival and had its first performance in the cathedral in 1896. After revision it was played again at the festival in 1899. The work deals with the story of Christ's healing of the blind man, as recounted in the Gospel of St John. The first of the two numbers included here opens the oratorio, after the initial instrumental Meditation. 'Seek Him that maketh the seven stars' is for four-part male chorus, representing Levites in the Temple Courts. The voice of the blind man is heard outside the Temple, returning once more in supplication, before the Levites complete their prayer. 'Light of the World' is the final G major chorus, in a confident style well suited to the cathedral conventions of the day.
The oratorio The Apostles was completed and first performed in 1903. Elgar had long had the idea of writing such a work, dealing with the calling of the apostles. The work came in response to a commission from Birmingham, and the theme was continued three years later in The Kingdom. He prepared the texts himself, taking some advice from Canon Charles Gorton and others. 'The Spirit of the Lord' is the prologue to The Apostles, often performed as an anthem. It sets the tone of what is to follow, while introducing various motifs later to be associated with the Church and with Christ. The words of the prologue are taken from Isaiah.
In 1909 the Elgars spent some time in Italy, staying at the villa of a friend near Florence. Here the composer recovered his spirits, after a period in which he had felt in need of recuperation. He was able to think further about his Violin Concerto and his Second Symphony, and wrote, during his stay, 'Go, Song of Mine', a setting of Rossetti's translation of a poem by Dante's friend Guido Cavalcanti. This brief meditation on mortality becomes a more extended and moving unaccompanied part-song, a work of considerable power. It was first performed in Hereford in September in the same year and was dedicated to his publisher at Novello, Alfred Littleton.
By 1911, the year of George V's coronation, for which he wrote the offertory setting of a verse from Psalm V, 'O hearken Thou', Elgar was fully established as a composer of importance. The work was also published in a Latin version, 'Intende voci orationis meae'. The organist at the coronation, Walter Alcock, assistant to the Westminster Abbey organist Sir Frederick Bridge, draws attention, in his introduction to the published music of the service, to the ‘many striking progressions' and the final cadence, in a work that he aptly describes as one of ‘reverent supplication'.
Elgar completed his setting of Psalm XLVIII in 1912, dedicating it to Armitage Robinson, former Dean of Westminster and now Dean of Wells. He had first met Robinson some years earlier in Alassio and was indebted to him for theological and historical suggestions for the oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom. The psalm was first performed in Westminster Abbey in July 1912 and is described as ‘an anthem for the foundation or commemoration of a church, or for general use'. It is scored for a six-part choir and bass solo. Splendid dramatic use is made of contrasted vocal registers in the opening section. There is an abrupt change of mood and key at the words 'For, lo! the kings assembled themselves', and a quasi recitative section leads to the bass solo 'We have thought on Thy loving kindness'. Upper and lower voices answer each other in 'Let Mount Zion be glad', and the opening forms the basis of the confident final section.
The setting of Psalm XXIX was written in 1914 for the Sons of Clergy Festival at St Paul's Cathedral. It is dedicated to Sir George Martin, who had succeeded Stainer as organist at St Paul's in 1888. The powerful opening is apt for the occasion, mounting in triumph at the words 'The God of glory thundereth'. The cedars are dramatically broken, the wilderness shaken and the forests stripped bare, before the meditative tranquillity of the Temple and the following return to the majesty of the opening. The psalm ends with the serenity of the blessing of peace.
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ELGAR: Ave Maria / Give unto the Lord / Te Deum an...