ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR: Part-Songs
When Elgar’s popular part-song My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land was published in 1890, a ready market for such pieces had been established by the competition festival movement, itself fuelled by the enormous growth in the number of choirs. This wide-ranging selection features several of Elgar’s finest songs, including his best-known work in the genre As Torrents in Summer, which boasts a memorable tune, the highly original and chromatic Owls, probably the strangest that Elgar ever set, and the ambitious and bitonal There is Sweet Music which the composer himself described as ‘a clinker, and the best I have done’.
By Emma Baker
Elgar wrote many of his unaccompanied part-songs to satisfy the demand from burgeoning choral societies, festivals and competitions at the turn of the 20th century. You can clearly hear the composer of Gerontius at work in miniature. From songs with almost symphonic writing and rhythms, 'Death on the Hills' and 'Love's Tempest', to those that steer just on the right side of sentimental Victoriana, such as the piano-accompanied Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands or the haunting 'The Owls' (a strange, nihilistic little poem by Elgar himself). Christopher Robinson directs the clean, young voices of the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, which sing with carefully shaded dynamics and impeccable tuning, if rather churchy diction. Unusual repertoire worth exploring, especially at this budget price.
By David Denton
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
One of the many and varied musical experiences the young Elgar enjoyed in Worcester was the Glee Club which met weekly at the Crown Hotel during the winter months. Its musical core was made up of the Cathedral lay clerks, and the total membership was around a hundred. Once a month there was an instrumental night, when a small band played arrangements of overtures and other short orchestral pieces. Elgar’s father played the violin and Edward himself joined in the late 1860s when he was about twelve years old. He progressed to becoming leader of the band, and also its accompanist, later telling an interviewer: “It was an enjoyable and artistic gathering, and the programmes were principally drawn from the splendid English compositions for men’s voices. The younger generation seemed to prefer ordinary part-songs, . . . and the tone of the thing changed”. Elgar’s name soon appeared on the programme as a composer: his first biographer R. J. Buckley wrote: “His compositions showed a decided versatility. He wrote for the glee party, for the band, for the solo singers, for anything and everything . . .”
On 1st March 1881 the Club performed a part-song by Elgar: Why so pale and wan? It has not survived, and it was almost twenty years before he wrote another, by which time a ready market for such pieces was established: the competition festival movement. The enormous growth in the number of choirs led to the popularity of these contests, particularly in the north of England. My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land , to words by Andrew Lang, was published by Novello in 1890, thus beginning a relationship with the publishers which spanned Elgar’s most creative years. He later told his friend Jaeger – the ‘Nimrod’ of the Enigma Variations – that when the song first appeared: “. . . it was said to be crude, ill-written for the voices, laid out without knowledge of the capabilities of the human voice!!” Michael Hurd was surely nearer the mark when he described it as “. . . magnificently grand and passionate – as if a Parry had suddenly been released from gentlemanly reticence”. It is a fine song, much loved by singers, beginning simply in four parts. In the third verse, however, Elgar divides the men’s parts, and the melody is given to the sopranos and first tenors, while the rest of the choir sing the words to a repetitive, rhythmic motif – an accompanimental device which Elgar later used in Death on the Hills  and Serenade . The point has often been made that Elgar’s musical thinking was always in orchestral terms, and in his greatest songs he loved to fill out the sound by writing for more than the usual four parts.
During the 1890s the Elgars enjoyed several holidays in Bavaria: Edward loved the countryside, the relaxed atmosphere, and the fact that Catholicism was the predominant religion. They were particularly fond of the local Schuhplattler dancing, and in 1895 Elgar wrote a suite of six ‘choral songs’ to his wife’s words, which tried to imitate the spirit of these dances. The work was entitled Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands -. It was later orchestrated, and Elgar also arranged three of the songs as the orchestral suite Three Bavarian Dances. His love of Bavaria is evident in the joyful exuberance of the work, particularly the outer movements. Five of the movements are in triple time, and only one, False Love , strikes a sad note. The harmonic interest is often in the accompaniment, especially in the famous Lullaby , and in the final movement, The Marksmen .
The following year, 1896, was a significant one for Elgar with the successful premières of two choral works: The Light of Life at the Worcester Festival, and King Olaf at the North Staffordshire Festival. Included in the Epilogue of the latter work was an unaccompanied partsong, As Torrents in Summer , which has become the composer’s best known work in this genre, as Rosa Burley, the Malvern schoolmistress realised when he first played it to her: “I knew that he had written an ending to his cantata which . . . would send his audience away with a memorable tune ringing in their ears”. In 1902, by which time Elgar was becoming a national figure through the success of the Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius and the first two Pomp and Circumstance marches, he was approached by the Morecambe Musical Festival to write a test piece and attend the meeting as an adjudicator. He wrote Weary Wind of the West for the 1903 festival and two years later followed it with Evening Scene . This had its première in May 1906 and was dedicated to Robert Howson, conductor of the Morecambe Choir, whom Elgar described as “the musical soul of the Morecambe affair”. Samuel Langford in The Manchester Guardian called it “. . . a highly original bit of writing, a singularly faithful translation into tone of the drowsy, dreamy atmosphere of evening in the fields and its subdued sounds”.
In late 1907 the Elgars went to Rome for the winter. Edward was trying to write a symphony, but over the Christmas period he wrote five of his finest part-songs – The Reveille for men’s voices, and the four mixed-voice part-songs Opus 53. These were not commissions and it is strange that he wrote them at this time: maybe he wanted a change from writing for the orchestra. He selected the words to the first three, and wrote the fourth himself. The first song, There is Sweet Music, is dedicated to Canon Charles Gorton, Rector of Morecambe and founder and President of the festival there. Elgar called it “. . . a clinker and the best I have done”. It broke new ground by being written in two keys at once, the tenor and bass parts in G, the soprano and alto in A flat. Its difficulty meant that when it was performed in the highest class at the 1909 Morecambe Festival, only five choirs entered (instead of the usual twenty or so).
The second song, Deep in my soul , is a heartfelt setting of words by Byron; and as the song is dedicated to an American lady, Julia Worthington, known as ‘Pippa’ to Elgar’s circle, some have sought for a deeper meaning in the words, especially as Mrs Worthington has been suggested as the ‘soul’ “enshrined” in the Violin Concerto, written two years later. O Wild West Wind  is dedicated to Dr W. G. McNaught, doyen of competition adjudicators, who had served with Elgar at Morecambe. Though marked with the familiar Elgarian nobilmente, the composer added the note “with the greatest animation but without hurry”. It is impassioned music, as befits words in which the poet begs the wind to inspire his efforts in order to bring his message to the world: “Be through my lips to unawakened earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy”. For Elgar, deep into writing his long-awaited symphony, the words must have had a particular potency. The final song of the opus, Owls , is probably the strangest that Elgar ever set. It is very chromatic and there are some weird harmonies. Jaeger said that it baffled analysis and he knew “. . . nothing like it. The words . . . are as strange and vague as the music . . . It is frankly nihilistic . . . and the music deepens the gloom”. However he found it “as full of genius as anything Elgar has done”. The composer had told Jaeger: “It is only a fantasy and means nothing. It is in [a] wood at night evidently and the recurring ‘Nothing’ is only an owlish sound”. The sense of despair heard by Jaeger is surely correct, however, and makes one imagine that Elgar’s “It . . . means nothing” is an attempt to cover up something deeply personal which he was unwilling to explain.
In April 1909 the Elgars were in Italy again, staying at Careggi near Florence in a villa rented by Julia Worthington. Here he composed what is felt by many to be his greatest part-song, Go, Song of Mine , written in six parts. The words, a translation by Rossetti of a medieval Italian poem, again have a distinctly autobiographical ring: the author’s “song” is sent out “to break the hardness of the heart of man”. To what extent Elgar applied them to himself we can only speculate, but he certainly gave it “a big setting”, as he wrote to Gorton. It had its première at the 1909 Three Choirs Festival at Hereford, and was soon taken up by the major competition festivals as another excellent and taxing test piece.
Diana McVeagh has written: “From now on , Elgar’s choral songs are elaborate, expansive, and gorgeous as sheer sound . . . In the adventurous use of texture, colour and interplay of sonorities these songs are markedly original”. Writing in the Contemporary Review in 1911 Gerald Cumberland said: “The creative energy of many European composers is being directed into channels where it may most quickly reach large masses of the people – that is to say, it is exploring the possibilities of the human voice and creating music which is largely experimental in its attempt to arrive at hitherto undreamt-of effects in tone colour, dramatic description and lyrical expressiveness”. Cumberland mentions Elgar, Bantock, and Brian among English composers, and Richard Strauss, Debussy, and Sibelius in Europe. He could have also added Mackenzie, whose Op. 71 part-songs of 1911 are sadly neglected, and Schoenberg, whose fiendishly difficult eight-part Friede auf Erden dates from 1907, the same year as Elgar’s Opus 53 set.
By 1914 Elgar had formally split from Novello, who nevertheless were still anxious to make money from his works where they could. They knew that partsongs were financially rewarding, and the firm’s chairman, Alfred Littleton, wrote to the secretary: “I don’t want any more Elgar symphonies or concertos, but am ready to take as many part-songs as he can produce”. That year the composer “produced” five more. The two Op. 71 songs, to words by Henry Vaughan, are exquisitely written, deceptive in their (relative) simplicity. In The Shower , the altos and tenors have pattering semiquavers against the tune’s quavers in a couple of places, suggesting the “train of drops” of the title. The second song, The Fountain , refers to a stillness in nature (“all the earth lay hush”); but then, “Only a little fountain lent some use for ears”. The music of nature was always a potent force for Elgar: as a boy he had been found lying by the River Severn, “trying to fix the sounds”, as he wrote many years later. The largest of these 1914 songs is Op. 72, Death on the Hills , a translation of some grim words by the Russian poet Maikov, concerning Death stalking a village looking for victims. In the second half of the song, the three upper parts sing “with a thin and somewhat veiled tone” some repetitive lines representing the villagers, while beneath them the basses intone Death’s grisly words. More translations from the Russian make up Op. 73. Each verse of Love’s Tempest  begins quietly and slowly before a great outburst allegro con fuoco, representing first a storm at sea, and then a “tumult” in the poet’s heart created by a mental image of his loved one. The song’s companion, Serenade , has a repeated refrain, “Dreams all too brief, dreams without grief, once they are broken, come not again”; ideal for a composer preoccupied with dreams, and whose precarious emotional equilibrium was being constantly threatened.
The decade after Alice Elgar’s death in 1920 saw few new works from Elgar, although there were a number of part-songs, the best of them being The Wanderer (1923) for men’s voices, and the mixedvoice part-song The Prince of Sleep , from 1925, which Diana McVeagh has rightly described as “beautiful and mysterious”. The languid setting captures masterfully the Lethean sentiments of the words; imagery of dreams and the natural world (especially woodland) again seemed to inspire Elgar, and this neglected song can stand comparison with his finest in the genre. The closing words of de la Mare’s poem strike once more an autobiographical note: “And rosy, as with morning buds, Along his dales of broom and birk [birch] Dreams haunt his solitary woods”.
© 2008 Geoffrey Hodgkins
Sung Text are available online at www.naxos.com/libretti/570541.htm