The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.
he works that Edward Elgar composed between 1909 and 1914 constitute a veritable portrait of an aging artist at the height of his fame. Such scores as the Crown of India Suite, Sospiri, the Second Symphony and, above all, Falstaff, present the varying facets of his creative personality as manifested just before the First World War; after August 1914, Elgar's world came crashing down around his ears.
Composed to commemorate the 1911 Delhi Durbar, a court ceremony held for the crowning of George V as Emperor of India, The Crown of India, Op. 66, an "Imperial Masque" was the fruit of a collaboration between Elgar and playwright Henry Hamilton. Premiered at the London Coliseum in 1912 by a cast headed by "India" and 12 of her most important cities, it was enormously popular with critics and audience alike. The score, which celebrated the waning British Raj through "gorgeous and patriotic music," comprised some 20 musical numbers interspersed with dramatic passages. It was, said Elgar, "appropriate to this special period in English history."
The orchestral suite of five movements drawn from the masque was premiered six months later under the composer's baton. Following an Introduction that presents several musical motifs from the masque, "The Dance of the Nautch Girls" evokes the imagined intricacies of kathak dance; the musical gestures were (to the Coliseum audience) suggestive of the perceived eroticism of the hand, head, and eye movements of Indian dancing girls. A contrasting Allegro molto section features a repetitive rhythmic pattern on "tomtoms," along with fortissimo parallel fifths, flat leading tones, and swirling figures in flutes and piccolo to evoke the perceived primitive or barbarous nature of the "nautch" as described by nineteenthth-century travelers.
George V, the first reigning monarch to visit India, and Queen Mary are under the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the event in the style of sixteenth-century western Indian architecture. In the masque, the stately E-flat "Minuetto" heralded the highest officials of "the Honourable East India Company," as well as several "heroes" of the "Great Mutiny" of 1857. Following the vigorous "Warrior's Dance" is a reflective "Intermezzo" that features some of the composer's most characteristic string writing, in particular the melancholy lyricism of the opening melody. The "March of the Mughal Emperors" had originally accompanied Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb onto the stage: "four names whose splendours nothing shall annul." Elgar's three swaggering beats divided by two, along with striking eighth-note fanfares, and the side-drum's reiteration of a characteristic dance rhythm popularized by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov et al, reveal this "march" to be a polonaise. Elgar thus creates the image of a colorful, festive "Oriental" parade that is emphasized by several orchestral effects: a series of trills and pseudo-glissandi on muted trumpets mimic the trumpeting of elephants as they carry their Mughal masters. This evocation is punctuated by the full weight of the orchestra's bass instruments and Elgar's "Indian" gong in second-beat accents (à la polonaise) suggestive of ponderous elephant-steps which eventually leads to the cymbal-crashing, gong-ringing fortississimo (what the Musical Times referred to as "the magnificent barbaric turmoil") that brings The Crown of India Suite to a close.
Elgar dedicated Sospiri, Op. 70, to his close friend, W. H. "Billy" Reed, concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra. This touching miniature is exquisitely scored for strings, harp, and organ. Plaintive opening chords tinctured by the harp's gentle strumming underscore a resonant string theme that enters on a bittersweet dissonant ninth. The heart of the piece is dominated by a violin melody whose espressivo rising and falling sevenths poignantly evoke the "sighs" of the title.
The formidable critic Donald Francis Tovey considered Elgar's "symphonic study," Falstaff, Op. 68, to be "one of the immeasurably great things in music." Elgar himself remarked, "I have, I think, enjoyed writing it more than any other music I have ever composed, and perhaps, for that reason, it may prove to be among my best efforts." Elgar's portrayal of Sir John Falstaff is drawn from Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V, and the composer took his cue from Maurice Morgann's 1777 interpretation of Falstaff as "a knight, a gentleman, and a soldier." The composer's "analytical essay," which appeared in the Musical Times shortly before the work's premiere in 1913, divided Falstaff into four sections:
I. Falstaff and Prince Henry
Cellos announce "the chief Falstaff theme." Brilliantly suggestive of Sir John "in a green old age—mellow, frank, unprincipled," the theme returns in various guises throughout the work, thereby "knitting together the whole musical fabric." This is the first of several musical ideas in which Falstaff is heard conversing with Prince Hal, who responds with a cello theme that evokes his most "courtly and genial mood."
II. Eastcheap — Gadshill — The Boar's Head. Revelry and Sleep — Dream Interlude
This music was inspired by Edward Dowden's description of an episode from Henry IV when "Prince Henry escapes to the teeming vitality of London's streets and the tavern where Falstaff is monarch." Elgar depicts the revelry until Falstaff, represented by a solo bassoon, becomes "more incoherent, vague, and somnolent" and "sinks down to heavy sleep." During the first interlude, scored for solo violin, strings, harp, and woodwind, Falstaff dreams of his youth, when "he was page to the Duke of Norfolk."
III. Falstaff's March — The Return through Gloucestershire — The New King — The Hurried Ride to London
The third section begins with a fanfare summoning Falstaff to raise soldiers for the King's army; an off-beat march depicts Sir John's "scarecrow army." After a battle, they rest in a Gloucestershire orchard; this interlude is scored, like the first, for small orchestra, and features Elgar's "sadly-merry pipe and tabour music" (woodwind and percussion) alternating with a dolcissimo theme for muted viola and cello. News of Prince Hal's accession interrupts the idyll, and Falstaff hurries to London, confident of becoming "fortune's steward."
IV. King Henry V's Progress — The Repudiation of Falstaff, and his Death
The final section opens with Hal's first theme recast as a triumphal procession; Falstaff pushes forward to greet his young friend with an expansive rendition of his main theme, but the new King mockingly repudiates him. As the broken Falstaff lies dying, snatches of music from the past are heard — "he is so shaken it is most lamentable to behold."The muted string melody from the Orchard Idyll returns to great expressive effect, and is followed by a quiet C major chord held in the brass that signals Falstaff's death. The side drum is heard marching off in the distance and a final appearance of Hal's military theme declares that "the man of stern reality has triumphed."
Elgar prefaced his Second Symphony, Op. 63, with lines from Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!" Although not explicitly programmatic, this epigraph provides an interpretative key to the often elegiac tone of this powerful, classically structured symphony. The exhilarating opening presents a descending motto theme, the "Spirit of Delight," that recurs throughout the work. This exultant theme is later transformed into the reflective second main subject. One particularly haunting episode, permeated by mysterious harmonies and veiled scoring, features an enigmatic, ghostly muted string theme over distant drumbeats. After the recapitulation, the exuberant spirit of the opening returns to provide one of Elgar's most brilliant codas.
The binary form Larghetto may have been inspired by the imposing interior of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, with which Elgar was greatly impressed during a 1910 visit. Clothed in woodwind and brass hues and underscored by a murmuring drum, the grave main theme is, like Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, a funeral march in C minor that later gives way to a wistful tune played by the oboe and English horn; this in turn is followed by a meditative string melody built on the descending "Spirit of Delight" theme.
The third movement opens with a nimble Rondo tune that unravels itself to reveal a terrifying vision: a strange idea in cellos and violins (the countermelody of the enigmatic string theme from the first movement) is spurred on by relentless, pounding chords over a pedal bass in a chilling orchestral crescendo that Elgar explained to an orchestra thus: "I want you to imagine that my music represents a man in a high fever . . . that dreadful beating that goes on in the brain; it seems to drive out every coherent thought.This hammering must gradually overwhelm everything. Percussion, you must give me all you're worth! I want you to gradually drown the rest of the orchestra."
Elgar suggested that the Finale, which presents a series of broad and dignified themes, depicts the soul's final "passion in noble action."A majestic climax gradually subsides into the final delicate pages. This quiet coda caught the audience at the premiere unawares, and perhaps accounted for the muted response given the symphony. Elgar complained to Reed that the audience acted "like a lot of stuffed pigs."This exquisitely scored più tranquillo coda might best be interpreted through the words of the composer, as "the apotheosis and the eternal issue of the soul's pilgrimage."
Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; 58-62.
Last modified 20 August 2007