Gentle and distant rumblings in the timpani open Elgar’s magnificent first symphony, establishing at the outset the fairly unusual choice of Ab major as the home key (the work is arguably the only symphony of note written in this key.) Completed in 1908, the first performance of the work was led by the composer’s close friend Hans Richter by the Halle orchestra in Manchester on December 3rd of that year.
The finished work was an immediate and phenomenal success, particularly so as it was felt that England had not produced a composer of such note since the long distant days of Henry Purcell (1659-1695.) Elgar at the time was riding high and moving in ever grander circles – quite an achievement for the son of a provincial musician who hailed from the small village of Lower Broadheath in Worcestershire, England.
Speculation at the time had been rife for many years that Elgar was planning a symphony and so public interest and anticipation in the project was considerable.
The England of the time was all-powerful – a prominent fixture in the world order and in many respects, confident of its place in the world. Perhaps for that reason, Elgar’s music is so often labelled jingoistic, pompous, and superior. I personally believe this to a tragic misjudgement and a failure to view the circumstances of the time through the appropriate lenses.
Like Beethoven before him with a nod toward Napoleon when creating his Eroica, Elgar had intended to make the work a tribute to another military leader (General Gordon) however on publication of the score, he insisted this plan had gone by the wayside and that his symphony had ‘No programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future’. What wonderful words to keep in mind as we resume our exploration of this great work.
After the rumbling timpani have established the home key, a noble and upstanding theme (0.10) is heard over a plodding, but sure-footed bass line. The theme is repeated before being developed a little further; the bass line maintains the momentum and drives forward with growing strength to a re-instatement of the opening theme (1.38) by full orchestra. Despite Elgar dropping the idea of composing a tribute to General Gordon, it’s easy to imagine the strong, morally upstanding leader when hearing this opening theme. Pride and glory emanate from the melody before it begins to soften and come to a short rest on the note of Ab itself.
Unexpectedly and without warning, we are plunged (3.14) into the remote and dark sounding key of D minor for a new, agitated section. An extraordinary choice of key for an opening theme in Ab major. This allegedly came about when someone made a bet with Elgar that he couldn’t write a symphony in two keys at once. It also seems to suggest the two sides of the composer’s personality (Bard of the empire in Ab major and plagued with inner worries in D minor.)
Self-assuredness and a sense of belonging have left us abruptly and we find ourselves in something of a panic, racing blindly to find answers. The music accelerates and begins whirring wildly until we hear the same theme again, this time slightly transposed (elevated to a new key.) More and more instruments enter the fray, jostling for their place on the speakers’ podium until we reach a point of trying to process all that has suddenly taken place (4.06) the aural equivalent of sitting down to catch one’s breath.
Things do settle down somewhat, albeit with a brief snatch of an important (4.22) descending theme which we hear again later in the symphony (in various guises.) Elgar was known to be an admirer of Wagner’s music and here he seems to have taken a leaf out of the German composer’s book by inserting a “leitmotif” (a re-current theme which appears throughout a musical or literary composition.)
At 4.31 we hear the harps make themselves heard for the first time – some lovely, florid passages follow, the woodwind adding decoration to the gentle melody in the violins. Elgar further expands this tender and romantic theme before we find ourselves neatly back at the “catch your breath sequence.” This time it serves as the harbinger of trouble and it quickly becomes clear that all is not well (5.41.)
Various sections of the orchestra rouse themselves as though preparing for battle – an ascending charge from the first violins is quickly met with a muscular downward response from the trumpets, everything is swiftly on a downward spiral reaching the bottom of the barrel via chugging double bass instruments – the strings compel the rest of orchestra to revive themselves with an increasingly desperate charge forward, but their cries are promptly put down by a more powerful force (6.07) – the trumpets adding considerable strength and reinforcement to their statement.
If I close my eyes and bear in mind the original intended dedication to General Gordon, I can imagine a far-flung revolt being put down with brutal force – perhaps Elgar’s musical tapestry isn’t so far from actual reality of those imperial campaigns of yore.
Once the dust settles, the music naturally finds its way back toward the opening nobilmente theme, this time in a new key (6.35) and rendered in a much more subdued fashion. From this new signature, Elgar tries a new approach and begins to develop the music, with creative uses of musical fragments that had gone before. These passages sound by turns whimsical and bucolic, before a sudden and menacing thundercloud appears (8.09) which takes hold through subsequent passages, at times snarling like a caged tiger, at others as though the same problem is being examined through many different angles. Elgar was rightly lauded for his skill in orchestration and this symphony is testament to that terrific ability – achieving tremendous shades of colours and textures in his methodology of assigning different musical voices and blending them for maximum effect (in his later years, the composer was known to enjoy the hobby of amateur chemistry at his home lab!)
The restless theme reaches a violent climax at 9.40, venting its fury before gliding into a reflective, but as yet unresolved series of passages. Thought and moods continue to swing back and forth, before the opening theme reappears once again (10.32.) It isn’t long before we find ourselves back at that restless, urgent D-minor theme (11.08.) It gathers strength before charging back toward a headlong gallop. Elgar modifies the theme somewhat this time in order to accommodate key changes and we travel once again through some familiar themes.
Another revolt seems to be brewing in the distance and the cavalry are required once again to issue another put-down, only this time more swiftly and with more vengeance. Cue jumpy and nervous instruments brushing themselves down, readying for battle (13.25.) Elgar adds more power over and above his trumpets this time, opting for the added bite of the trombones to hammer home their descending scale (13.41.) The timpani perhaps represent firing cannon, the scurrying and panic stricken orchestra the rapidly crushed mutineers.
The attempts at resolving the aftermath of this crescendo are more drawn out this time before settling at 15.09 on a bleak and desolate conclusion. The music somehow gropes its way back through the darkness toward the opening theme and ingeniously, in the home key of Ab major once again. The theme is put through variations permutations and examined through different prisms, many of them dreamy and ethereal before a staccato bassoon (17.44) slows the music down considerably and allows us to assimilate the main theme.
Elgar has time for one last surprise, however. That leitmotif which appeared earlier comes back (18.08) to remind us that all is not well under the surface. Elgar however steers the music back to finish on a “that will suffice for now” cadence in Ab major.
A gentle prod in the key of F# minor gets us underway in the 2nd movement, which Elgar frames as a military march, achieving the effect more authentically by cleverly dividing the 1st and 2nd violins to sound as though they are working against each other, marching in contrary directions (0.22) like determined soldiers. Pay close attention here to the rapid, scampering melody played at the outset Elgar will make later go on to make ingenious use of this same melody, but greatly slowed down and transposed into a new key….
A brusque march (0.36) leads us forward – a clash of cymbals perhaps suggesting a military band. The music flexes its muscles and continues to grow in strength, louder cymbals emphasising the raw power of the music. The scampering melody (1.31) is cleverly interwoven with the more dominant military theme before the pontification subsides and we arrive at a gentler, lyrical section in Bb major (1.55.) Elgar famously asked this section to be “played like something you hear down by the river.” The composer was known for being able to draw great inspiration from rural surroundings, particular those of his native Malvern Hills in Worcestershire.
The music continues to probe gently, gliding airily over the landscape with a great deal of delicacy. The solace is interrupted at 3.11 by the return of the military march – this continues on a grimly determined path, ultimately dying down to the gentle summer fields of Elgar’s river theme once again. The music winds its way placidly forward, exploring all those English country lanes that perhaps haven’t been peered down, slowing in pace very gradually until the all we hear is a single held F# (6.49.) Omitting the necessity of a pause between movements, Elgar now performs his ingenious trick i.e. transforming that scampering F# minor melody note for note into a gorgeous, heartfelt D major theme. By doing so, he leads straight through to the 3rd movement.
For a British composer to have composed an adagio which is comparable in stature to that of the great European masters is testament to Elgar’s wonderful achievement with this symphony.
Utilising that same melody from the 2nd movement, we enter into a calm oasis filled with unfiltered, heartfelt love; incorporating an essence of that “charity” that Elgar spoke of in his description of the symphony. The strings are lush, sonorous and swell into chest bursting pride at 1.12 with a full orchestral statement – a pure D major chord with that same recycled theme interlaced within.
The music settles to a whisper, (1.31) elements of doubt creeping in and a questioning nature in the air. Elgar continues to utilise downward or descending melodies here; they appear to suggest insecurity or a lack of self-confidence and appear quite frequently throughout the adagio.
The delicate and expressive themes continue to flow, all delivered with sweeping and yearnful phrasing. After pondering these wistful thoughts, Elgar brings us back to the main opening theme, this time played more softly (5.23) throwing in an unexpected key change for good measure (5.54) before landing in A major for the 2nd full statement.
The descending theme heard at 7.57 is pure Elgar and could literally serve as a motif for his typical sound – his trademark 7th chord can be heard here. It’s has a languorous kind of sound, but with that unescapable sense of anxiety hidden just under the surface which is so apparent across the composer’s oeuvre. From here, Elgar introduces a final theme which he will use to close the movement (8.21) – it’s exquisitely delicate and searing in its emotional intensity. Not an intensity of grief, but one of great love and vulnerability. It reaches a question mark of sorts at 9.37.)
The woodwinds continue the theme and carry the music forward. It feels more and more as though the movement is drawing to a close and the distant harp almost sounds redolent of an ancient grandfather clock ticking its last. This theme makes its closing appearance at 10.47 – to have performed any quieter would have been close to impossible.
Elgar’s contemporary WH Reed described “the astounding effect of the muted trombones (11.02) in the last five bars….like a voice from another world.” The clarinet poses one final question (11.28) – the orchestra answer with a whispered D major cadence – simply gorgeous.
After the lullaby-esque close of the slow movement, we are left to wonder just how the composer will find the right way to present a final, concluding movement. The 4th movement is full of mystery, lyricism and swashbuckling grandeur, leading ultimately to the return of the original nobilmente theme and a huge sense of optimism at the close.
Opening with a dark, nefarious sounding trembling (0.03) in the lower bowels of the orchestra – the bass clarinet first to peer out of the darkness with real trepidation. If we try to visualise the scene, we can perhaps see edgy poachers creeping stealthily through the night woods, fearful of capture and punishment. The tentative initial steps grow, adding a modicum of fresh confidence as the poachers start to feel their way through the dark scene, returning before long to their original furtive skulking. Suddenly, the game is up and they are finished – the gamekeeper raising up with a snarl and apprehending the guilty party.
The fragments of a new theme are being assembled, before springing into a lively tempo (2.10.) This is heavily syncopated on the off-beats, which gives it a sense of momentum and keeps things moving forward at a healthy pace. We can sense the return of our military general, rounding up his troops and readying them for a new battle. The marching themes continue to build and gather strength, culminating in an angry sounding promenade (3.59.)
The pace is maintained and the syncopated, driving melodies continue to be explored and re-examined until we take a breath and the music slows to a more reflective, lyrical section. Once again, Elgar performs his trick of re-using a theme and slowing it down – the effect is incredible. This transformed theme begins after a short introduction at 6.09 and builds up with increasing intensity. Elgar has used some clever features here to achieve his desired effect e.g. harps to soften the soundscape, gentle rolling timpani to add a musical backdrop. It’s highly impressive stuff but there’ little time to stand around and admire before we plunge forward in an energetic search for the next climax. Essentially, the opening material is transposed to a new key and a 2nd march thrashed out, only this time we have reached a new viewpoint (9.01) and things have become more jovial, celebratory perhaps. It sounds like we have at last reached the promised land, trilling piccolos suggest celebrating in the streets, heavy brass suggest great fanfare.
It can only mean one thing – the return of the hero (9.34.) We now hear the glorious and noble opening theme in all its glory played against the din and clamour of the entire orchestra. It’s easy to imagine a victorious ship hoving into view, sailing into port from afar, the triumphant army all aboard. The din and clamour sound somewhat like giant waves crashing against the sides of the ship, but our homeward heroes will not be denied. The crashing timpani bring some order as the theme plays itself out all the way down the home straight. Great use is made of the blaring brass instruments in enforcing a closing Ab major chord, and this great work comes to a jubilant, fist-pumping close.
The work remains one of the most important symphonies of the repertoire and has been recorded on numerous occasions – all the way from Elgar’s own 1931 recording through to a wealth of modern performances by major orchestras all over the world.