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8.557273 - ELGAR: Marches
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
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.
The marches that Elgar wrote, whether for public occasions or as an incidental part of other works, represent only one aspect of his achievement as a composer, and not necessarily the most important, in spite of the wide popularity a number of them have enjoyed. Altogether they often represent music of profounder achievement, by no means jingoistic in conception, whatever the present connotations may be.
In 1911 a march was commissioned for the coronation of King George V, an event that Elgar and his wife decided not to attend, because of the expected length of the ceremony, the allocation of seats in the south aisle of Westminster Abbey which offered a limited view of the ceremony, and Elgar’s own dislike of crowds. The Coronation March opens with a less festive theme from material originally intended for a projected ballet based on Rabelais that had excited his wife’s disapproval, when it had been under discussion seven years before. The march uses other earlier sketches, but turns out to be an orchestral composition of some significance, no merely superficial occasional piece, but a work of symphonic proportions and profounder suggestion.
In 1901 Elgar had provided incidental music for the play Grania and Diarmid by George Moore and W.B.Yeats, staged at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in October of that year. The play concerns the rivalry of Finn and his nephew Diarmid for the hand of Grania, a pursuit in which Diarmid’s success leads to his murder by Finn. In a letter to Jaeger, Elgar describes the funeral music as ‘big and weird’ and likely to appeal to his correspondent. The Funeral March is a sombre piece, evocative of the Celtic twilight of the early Irish legend, winning praise from the authors of the play. Elgar dedicated it to the conductor Henry Wood and included it in his own concert programmes.
Elgar wrote his first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches in the same year. He was particularly pleased with the trio melody of the March No. 1 in D major, in his own words ‘a tune that will knock’em flat’. The famous melody has won further fame coupled with the words supplied by A.C. Benson for the Coronation Ode of 1902, Land of hope and glory. The second march, in A minor, is less familiar, with a first theme of mounting excitement, and a contrasted secondary melody. The lively trio section is in A major. The work was dedicated to the composer and conductor Granville Bantock.
Elgar completed his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 3, in C minor, in 1904, having already dedicated it to Ivor Atkins, organist and choirmaster of Worcester Cathedral. It starts ominously, before rising to a climax, as the melody emerges in fuller form. The cheerfully lyrical trio is in marked contrast, framed by the march and returning before the extended coda. The fourth march, in G major, was finished in 1907 and dedicated to the Hereford Cathedral organist George Robertson Sinclair, who features, with his dog Dan, in the Enigma Variations. This march comes only second in popularity to the first, with the trio again seeming to demand words of some sort. Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5, in C major, was written in 1930 and dedicated to Sinclair’s successor at Hereford Cathedral, Percy Hull. With a lively main section, there is contrast in the A flat major trio, which returns, marked nobilmente like the trio of the fourth march, after the recapitulation of the opening section.
Elgar completed his cantata Caractacus in 1898. The text was supplied by Harry Acworth, a neighbour in the West Country who had provided parts of the book for the earlier King Olaf, and dealt with the defeat of the British chieftain Caractacus by the Roman Emperor Claudius, the former’s captivity in Rome, and his release by the Emperor. The work goes on to foretell the fall of Rome and its opportune replacement by Queen Victoria’s British Empire. The story had some appeal for Elgar, as the last battle of Caractacus had supposedly taken place in the environs of Herefordshire. The Triumphal March marks the culmination of the drama.
Contemporary patriotism is reflected in the March of the Moghul Emperors, an episode in the Imperial Masque mounted by Henry Hamilton at the Coliseum in 1912, a celebration of the 1911 Durbar, under the title The Cities of Ind. The Durbar marked not only the accession of King George V but also the transfer of the Indian capital from Calcutta to the traditional capital Delhi, a location to which the great Moghul Emperors of the past bear appropriate witness, with rather less positive testimony from St George, who leaves the last word to King George.
In 1924 Elgar succeeded Sir Walter Parratt as Master of the King’s Musick in April, at a time when he was occupied with the celebration of Empire at the Wembley Exhibition, for which he wrote the Empire March, replaced, at royal request, by the earlier Imperial March at the opening of the exhibition, but serving to introduce the Pageant of Empire in the summer, when music by Elgar and others was included in the patriotic extravaganza. The music reflects an improbably confident optimism in a greatly changed world.
Polonia was written for a concert in 1915 in aid of the Polish Victims’ Relief Fund. Here Elgar uses Polish themes, with a national song, after the introduction, a hymn associated with revolt against the Russian Tsar in 1863. Later themes include Chopin’s Nocturne No. 11 in G minor and a melody from Paderewski’s Polish Fantasia. A further national Polish melody is used in the last section, presented with the required patriotic enthusiasm. The work was dedicated to Paderewski and described by Elgar as a symphonic prelude.
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