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.
Edward Elgar's musical perceptions and values were informed by music-making in England's provinces — choral festivals in the cathedral cities of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester, the pottery towns of Staffordshire, and Birmingham, capital of the industrial Midlands. As a capable violinist he played in the orchestras and encountered the staple diet of oratorios by Handel and Mendelssohn supplemented by the new sounds of Gounod and Dvorák, composers lionized by the British public. An equally formative part of this experience, often unmentioned, was his acquaintance with new British works and with the Anglican environment of church music, which, though a Roman Catholic, Elgar knew well and assimilated fully. Among these indigenous composers were Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, who were a generation senior to him.
Elgar played under the baton of Parry many times in choral works such as Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) and Judith (1888). A decade earlier Parry had begun to establish himself as a composer of note in London, producing chamber works for the innovative and progressive concert series given by the Alsatian piano virtuoso and champion of Wagner, Edward Dannreuther (1844-1905). The venue for these concerts, Dannreuther's home at 12, Orme Square, Bayswater, became synonymous with all that was new in the capital's musical life. During the 22 series of concerts held between 1876 and 1893, small but select audiences were treated to many first performances in England of works by Brahms, Scharwenka, Rheinberger, Sgambati, and Tchaikovsky as well a wide variety of contemporary pieces by Dvorák, Liszt, Grieg, Berlioz, Peter Cornelius, and Richard Strauss. Dannreuther also provided a platform for works by emerging British composers such as Stanford, Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, and H. Walford Davies, but most conspicuous in his programs is the substantial corpus of chamber works by Parry.
By 1877 Parry had completed his Grosses Duo for two pianos and his Piano Trio No. 1, two sizeable instrumental essays which, through Dannreuther's guidance, revealed a thorough assimilation of Brahmsian intellectualism. Parry actually began his Trio while Wagner, a guest of Dannreuther's at Orme Square, was in London attending the Wagner Festival at the Royal Albert Hall. The Trio was completed by June 23, 1877, and first performed at Orme Square on January 31, 1878, by Henry Holmes (violin), Jules Lasserre (cello), and Dannreuther. It was thereafter given several other hearings at Dannreuther's concerts and numerous others in London, among which was a particularly fine interpretation in June 1880 by Charles Hallé, his wife Madame Norman-Neruda, and her brother Franz. Parry's Trio shows the hand of a bold and eager mind.The first movement and Scherzo display great ingenuity in their handling of form and tonality, and both movements exhibit a wealth of melodic invention. The emotional heart of the work is the slow movement where Parry's natural lyrical gift is given room to expand freely. The opening idea for the violin is especially fine, as is the Schumannesque second subject introduced by the piano. The finale, an energetic sonata rondo, is an exhilarating virtuoso affair which was written undoubtedly with Dannreuther's pianistic abilities in mind.
Elgar's first major encounter with Stanford was as an orchestral violinist in the oratorio The Three Holy Children at the Birmingham Festival in 1885. By this time Stanford was enjoying recognition both in Britain and on the Continent, a meteoric rise to fame measured by a concert entirely devoted to his music in Berlin in January 1889. In the 1890s Elgar and Stanford became acquainted during Stanford's holidays in Malvern (a popular spa town), where Elgar lived at that time. Later their relationship deteriorated, and by 1905, after some ill-judged comments in Elgar's first lecture as Peyton Professor of Birmingham University, which Stanford took very personally, the two men did not speak to each other again for 17 years.The year after this unfortunate rift occurred, Stanford's Serenade (Nonet), Op. 95, was first performed at the Aeolian Hall on January 25, 1906. Scored for winds and strings, it is a work that reveals a side of Stanford's style in which formal craftsmanship is combined with an enchanting chemistry unique to the composer — Brahmsian adroitness united with Mendelssohnian felicity. Capricious modulation characterizes the buoyant mood of the first movement, and the slow movement, with its central agitated episode, looks back to the lament of Stanford's First String Quintet. But the most enthralling movement of the work is the Scherzo, whose outer sections are built on a succession of ingenious miniature variations that culminate in an ironic quotation of the opening horn motive of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. Recovery from this satirical climax is marked by the Trio which, as a transformation of the original Scherzo material in the guise of a waltz, serves as a further protracted variation.The humor of the Scherzo is reinforced in the finale's lopsided, 11-bar theme, and the witty quodlibet of the coda, which alludes to material from previous movements.
Less acclaimed as a songwriter, Elgar is best known in the genre for his orchestral song cycle Sea Pictures (1899). Song nevertheless occupied Elgar's imagination throughout his life and though much of his output rarely equals the songs of Parry and Stanford, there are numerous hidden treasures. The melodically attractive "Queen Mary's Song," taken from Tennyson's eponymous play, dates from 1887. "The Shepherd's Song," composed in 1892 though not published until 1895 with "Rondel" (finished in 1894) as part of the Op. 16 collection, is one of Elgar's best known vocal works. In 1904, in the wake of Elgar's success with his "Mediterranean" masterpiece In the South, his publisher pressed him to make a vocal arrangement of the Canto popolare from the overture's central section. Thus Elgar adapted this music to Shelley's "An Ariette for Music" as a song, calling it "In Moonlight." "Pleading" of 1908 is a deeply passionate song that transcends its apparent Victorian "parlour song" guise, while the innocent strains of "A Child Asleep" of 1909 were dedicated to the baby son of the mezzo-soprano Muriel Foster, one of Elgar's favorite singers.
Born a year after Elgar, Ethel Smyth spent less than a year in Leipzig (1877-78) before studying privately with Brahms's friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Her lively character, which can be viewed through the prism of her many autobiographies, found its most vivid musical expression in a series of six operas, including The Wreckers (1902-04) and The Boatswain's Mate (1913-14). Her most significant early attempts at large-scale composition were, however, in chamber works that evince mastery in their handling of extended form. As a mature composer, Smyth completed only one further large-scale chamber work, the String Quartet in E Minor (1912), while the short, well-crafted Variations on "Bonny Sweet Robin" (Ophelia's Song), for flute, oboe, and piano, was not published until 1928.
Arthur Somervell studied at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music as well as in Berlin. Somervell is nowadays most readily associated with song; indeed he is sometimes dubbed the "English Schumann" for four important song cycles. Somervell's cycle Maud (1898), a special favorite of the Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene, its unofficial dedicatee, was a felicitous selection of verse from Tennyson's dark monodrama.
The Cycle of Songs from Tennyson's Maud originally consisted of 13 songs, but before publication Somervell decided to exclude one of them, "Maud Has a Garden," which he published separately in 1907; later the song was reinstated. The cycle possesses a strong sense of narrative with well-defined tensions between love and death."O Let the Solid Ground" is an optimistic utterance, which hopes for contact with Maud, the "distant beloved." This is juxtaposed with the touching "Birds in the High Hall Garden," in which the protagonist meets Maud for the first time. The impetuously passionate "Maud Has a Garden" tells of the lover's hope of seeing Maud out-of-doors, but a switch to the minor mode underpins a sense of horror at the "death-white curtain drawn" across the windows of her house. Yet in the fervent plea of "Go Not, Happy Day" the lover hopes that Maud will be restored to him; but even as he delights to hear the sound of her feet along the garden pathway in "I Have Led Her Home," the door of the house is closed and she is gone. In his setting of Tennyson's well-known poem,"Come into the Garden, Maud," Somervell encapsulates the lover's entreaties in a more substantial through-composed structure, commencing with an elegant waltz but later dissipating into a more urgent narrative in which the composer's theatrical handling of tonality is masterly.
Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; pp. 34-36.
Last modified 23 August 2007