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8.557166 - ELGAR: Wand of Youth / Nursery Suite
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Wand of Youth Suites • Dream Children • Nursery Suite
Sir Edward Elgar occupies a strange position in his own country. For many he is associated with British, or, more specifically, English Imperialism, epitomized in Land of Hope and Glory, a patriotic anthem now sung with gusto and tongue in cheek on the last night of the London Promenade Concerts each year. The image of an Edwardian country gentleman, with his dogs and horses is misleading. Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper, in the days when to be in trade marked a man for life and escape from this background earned a man the name of counter-jumper. He married the daughter of a retired Indian Army general, a pupil of his, nine years his senior, and it was she who gave him the necessary support, morally and socially, that finally helped him to make his way in Edwardian society. Nevertheless, musically Elgar was far nearer to the German romantic composers of his time than to the developing vein of English music, with its pastoral reliance on newly collected folk-song.
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 that Elgar acquired much of his musical training. 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 success away from his own West Country, after earlier abortive attempts, 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, was less successful at its first performance in Birmingham, but 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 the accolade of a knighthood. Later official honours included the Order of Merit in the coronation honours of 1911 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, after an earlier award to Delius.
Elgar’s work had undergone significant changes in the later years of the 1914-18 war, a development 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 meet demands for his appearance as a conductor in both the concert-hall and recording studio. He died in 1934.
It was in 1907 that Elgar turned his attention to compositions on which he had worked in childhood, notably music for a children’s play to be performed in the family with his brothers and sisters. The play contrasted age and youth, with the latter trying to persuade the two adults that fairyland offered more than the conventional world in which they lived. From this early material he drew two suites. The first of these had its première at the Queen’s Hall in London under Sir Henry Wood in December that year and the second suite was first given at the Worcester Festival in September 1908, conducted by the composer. The Wand of Youth provided a source in 1915 for some of the music that accompanied Violet Pearn’s play Starlight Express, based on a novel by Algernon Blackwood.
Suite No.1 starts with a lively Overture in the unmistakable musical language of the adult Elgar. The Serenade opens with an attractive clarinet melody. The E minor Minuet, in the old style, marks the entrance of the two old people, the adults of the original play. The mood changes at once with the spirited Sun Dance. Fairy Pipers has the stage direction ‘Two fairy pipers pass in a boat, and charm them to sleep’. Here there is a gently lilting melody for two clarinets, framing two passages for strings. This proves effectively somniferous and is followed by Slumber Scene, scored for muted strings, two bassoons and French horn. Fairies and Giants, derived from a Humoreske dated 1867, was of later use in Starlight Express. The illustrative nature of the music is clear.
The solemn G minor March that starts Suite No.2 had formed the ending of the children’s play. It is followed by The Little Bells, a little scherzo, with appropriate tintinnabulation from the glockenspiel and an E flat bell. The dance Moths and Butterflies has a charm of its own and was described by the composer as the oldest of the movements. It leads to Fountain Dance, with its muted strings, the first violins divisi. The Tamed Bear, with its traditional dance pattern, is contrasted with the final Wild Bears, in which the animals are allowed their freedom.
The two movements of Dream Children were written in 1902, again suggesting a certain nostalgia for childhood. The score is headed by a quotation from Charles Lamb’s Dream-Children, a Reverie: ‘And while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and still receding till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed on me the effects of speech: “We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all.*** We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been.”’ Dream Children seems to have been a re-working of earlier material, written, as Elgar explained, ‘long ago and sketched a few years back’.
The first of the idylls, originally with the title Sorrowful Child’s Suite, starts with the gentle sound of two clarinets in thirds, the opening key of G minor leading to a brighter E flat major, before the return of the initial reverie with pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons. The strings are again muted in the second of the two pieces, in which a clarinet takes the initial lead. There is contrast in slightly slower passages in a deeply felt work that often seems akin to Grieg or Tchaikovsky in elegiac mood.
In his Nursery Suite of 1930 Elgar returns for the last time to childhood. Dedicated to the Duke and Duchess of York and their children, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, it was first performed at a recording session in May 1931, conducted by the composer. The opening Aubade provides a gentle awakening and includes a quotation of the children’s hymn Hear Thy children, gentle Jesus. The Serious Doll brings a flute solo, returning in increasingly elaborate form after the brief melodic intervention of the oboe. Busy-ness lives up to its name, even more so with the rapidly repeated notes of its secondary theme, and The Sad Doll is a melancholy waltz, opening with muted strings and leading to a brief passage for solo violin. The Wagon (Passes) marks the slow approach of the lumbering wagon, drawing near and then moving away into the distance. The ebullient Merry Doll bursts into laughter and jumps around, while Dreaming, for muted strings, finds the child gently sleeping. The Envoy is introduced by a violin cadenza, as the composer leads the way to the return of the serious doll, and then, after the intervention of the violin, the merry doll, the child’s dreaming and the initial awakening.
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