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5.110003 - ELGAR: Symphony No. 3
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Anthony Payne (b. 1936)
Symphony No. 3
Elgars last major completed work was the Cello Concerto, Op. 85, finished on 8th August 1919. The death of his wife Alice on 7th April 1920 shattered him: he described himself as a broken man. The music he wrote between then and his own death on 23rd February 1934 was all on a small scale: the Severn Suite, the Nursery Suite, piano pieces, songs, and orchestral transcriptions. He did, however, embark on two major projects that never progressed beyond the stage of sketches: an opera, The Spanish Lady, with a libretto by Sir Barry Jackson, Director of the Malvern Festival, based on Ben Jonsons play The Devil is an Ass (begun in 1929), and a third symphony. On 7th January 1932 Elgars staunch ally George Bernard Shaw, who for years had been trying to persuade him to compose another symphony, wrote: Why dont you make the BBC order a new symphony? It can afford it. A few months later Elgar was seriously considering Shaws suggestion; on 29th June GBS wrote, on a postcard, Why not a Financial Symphony? Allegro: Impending Disaster. Lento mesto: Stony Broke. Scherzo: Light Heart and Empty Pocket. Allegro con brio: Clouds Clearing.
Rumours started to spread. On 4th August Walter Legge, then Editor of the Gramophone Companys house magazine The Voice, wrote to Elgar that he had heard, on what he believed to be very reliable authority, that you have practically completed a third symphony. Elgar promptly retaliated: There is nothing to say about the mythical Symphony for some time, probably a long time, possibly no time, never. At a tea party during the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester a month later Elgar was said, by the critic H. C. Colles, to have referred to the symphony as written, but said it would be pointless to finish up the full score since no one wanted his music now. On 30th September Shaw wrote to Sir John Reith, Director General of the BBC, reminding him that in 1823 (actually 1822) the Philharmonic Society in London had offered Beethoven £50 for the manuscript score of a new symphony, and that in 1827 the Society sent him £100; he was dying and he said God bless the Philharmonic Society and the whole English nation. GBS described this as by far the most creditable incident in English history and suggested that the BBC, with its millions, could do for Elgar what the old Philharmonic did for Beethoven. You could bring the Third Symphony into existence and obtain the performing right for the BBC for, say, ten years, for a few thousand pounds. The kudos would be stupendous and the value for money ample. The conductor Sir Landon Ronald acted as go-between, and the formal commission, offering a fee of £1,000, payable in four quarterly instalments, was made to Elgar in November. At a dinner in Londons Guildhall on 14th December, immediately after the last of three BBC concerts celebrating Elgars 75th birthday (on 2nd June 1932), Ronald announced the commission publicly. The next day Fred Gaisberg, Recording Artists Manager of the Gramophone Company, wrote to Elgar about the possibility of recording the work immediately before or after the first performance (the following autumn?) but received an evasive reply, ending as to Sym. III ?.
Very little of the symphony, even in the form of sketches, seems to have existed at the time. On 5th February 1933 Elgars close friend and biographer W.H. Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1912 to 1935, made the first of many visits to Marl Bank, Elgars house in Worcester, with his violin, to play through, with the composer at the piano, as much of the work as there was: sketches for the first movement, including a transition which I had to play countless times in every conceivable manner; the second movement, in place of Scherzo, of which he must have had the main theme (very light and rather wistful) in his mind for some years, as I have seen it scribbled in his scrap books in various forms; the slow movement, based on a broad, dignified and very expressive melody [in which] he exhorted me to "tear my heart out each time we repeated it" I was never able to induce him to write down the continuation, but I was allowed to play a bar or two (looking over his shoulder) from the fragments on one or two other scraps of MSS. but I could never prevail upon him to divulge in what order they were to appear. The finale was open to various possible readings, but he never played anything to show in what manner it should end, not even improvisation, but would leave off suddenly and abruptly when we arrived near that part, and say, "Enough of this; let us go out and take the dogs on the Common". Also, he would be very restless and ill at ease, and would not discuss the symphony any more, and it would be quite a while before he became calm and resumed his normal good spirits. Shaw and his wife Charlotte, Basil Maine (Elgars first biographer) and Gaisberg were among the people to whom Elgar played (either by himself or with Reed) parts of the symphony, or even possibly an attempt at all of it, often in conjunction with excerpts from the opera.
When the BBCs first cheque for £250 arrived on 25th March, Elgar wrote to Reith: I am hoping to begin "scoring" the work very shortly up to the present the symphony is the strongest thing I have put on paper. On 27th April Adrian Boults assistant, Owen Mase, wrote to Elgar asking if the symphony would be ready in time for the first concert in the BBC Symphony Orchestras 1933-34 season, on 18th October. Elgar hedged once more, saying that no announcement about the first performance should be made at this stage. Mase then suggested May 1934 as an alternative; Elgar, in bed recovering from a sudden bad turn two days ago, wrote to say that he liked the idea. On 20th September he had another bad turn, as a result of which he was told that he must go to a nursing home to undergo some small operation. As though he instinctively realised the seriousness of the situation, he wrote, on 7th October, to Reith: I am not at all sure how things will turn out and have made arrangements that in case the Symphony does not materialise the sums you have paid on account shall be returned. This catastrophe came without the slightest warning as I was in the midst of scoring the work. Perhaps it will not be necessary to refer publicly to the Symphony in any way at present; we will wait and see what happens to me. The operation revealed inoperable cancer and work on the symphony ceased. As he told his physician, Dr Arthur Thomson: If I cant complete the Third Symphony, somebody will complete it or write a better one in fifty or five hundred years. On 20th November the faithful Billy Reed went to see him. It was evident that he was trying very hard to speak; and gradually and at long intervals the words came from him. "I want you to do something for me the symphony all bits and pieces no one no one dont let anyone tinker with it no one could understand I think you had better burn it." Reed then said I dont think it is necessary to burn it: it would be awful to do that. But Carice [Elgars daughter] and I will remember that no one is to try to put it together. No one shall ever tinker with it: we promise you that.
In the last 42 pages of Elgar as I knew him (Gollancz, 1936) Reed reproduced, in facsimile, many of the most important and substantial of Elgars 127 pages of sketches (then in the BBC archives) which had accompanied his article, Elgars Third Symphony in The Listener of 23rd August 1935. Other sketches are reproduced in Robert Andersons Elgar in manuscript (The British Library, 1990), and, most important of all, in Anthony Paynes indispensable monograph Elgars Third Symphony: The Story of the Reconstruction (Faber and Faber, 1998). Many of them date from earlier in the composers life and were originally intended for other works, notably the fragmentary oratorio The Last Judgement and the incidental music for Laurence Binyons play Arthur. Their quantity and variety account for Basil Maines shrewd comment after spending some time with the composer in August 1933. He relied partly on the sketches (so disjointed and disordered as to be a kind of jigsaw puzzle), partly on memory, partly I imagine on extemporisation. During the improvised (or memorised) passages, it was possible to think that one was beginning to share Elgars vision, but the experience was so clouded and so fleeting that it could not possibly be re-captured by means of the sketches alone In the process of bringing forth a new conception every creative artist waits for that final moment of crisis which determines the greatness or ordinariness of the achievement. If the work is to be great, in that moment there comes the flash which lights up all the previous processes of thought, gives them unity, and orders their final relationship. It is my conviction that, in this last adventure, Elgar was still waiting for that final moment. The last revealing light had not yet broken upon his mind. Or, if it had, it broke when he lacked the physical strength to set down the signs. This would explain the moody restlessness which came upon him after he had been playing some of the symphony to me As Diana McVeagh wrote, some twenty years later, His mosaic method of construction is clearly seen in the sketches for his big works, which seem to have started from scraps and sections on individual papers with no intelligible indication of their order, but which ultimately were pieced together into his design. The sketches for the unfinished last works suggest that the scraps came into being easily enough but that the effort of final organization was too great: lack of concentration, not of inspiration, was what held back the Third Symphony and The Spanish Lady.
Anthony Payne first came across Elgar as I knew him in 1972, and when he looked at the sketches he was (as he writes in his Introduction to the full score of his elaboration of the sketches of Elgars Symphony No.3), immediately fascinated by the power and vitality of the music. It simply leapt from the page, and although most of the sketches were in short score, I immediately began to hear orchestral sounds in my head It was music that seemed to me to show Elgar in inspirational flight, and it gave the lie to received opinion that he had become a spent force after the death of his wife. Payne was, of course, aware of the embargo on tinkering, but this did not prevent him, now and then, from musing over the sketches in the privacy of my own room.
In November 1993, however, Paul Hindmarsh of BBC Manchester asked if he would be interested in putting the sketches into some sort of shape for workshop performance. The BBC sent him photocopies of the complete sketches (by now housed in the British Library), which showed that Reed had overlooked many pages of considerable interest. By this time he had already completed the Scherzo, and with the aid of the new sketches he completed the Adagio, (writing the last bar on 23rd February 1994 the sixtieth anniversary of Elgars death, as he later realised). Soon after this the Elgar family decided, after much deliberation, that they could not, in all honesty, over-rule the composers death-bed wish. The situation seemed hopeless, but then the family relented and gave their blessing to Hindmarshs programme, provided that Paynes tinkerings were not alluded to. It was broadcast in March 1995 (and later issued on CD, coupled with Percy Youngs completion of The Spanish Lady). The next day, thinking that that was the end of the affair, Payne suddenly realised that four pages of faintly outlined fragments in the sketches were intended for the first movements development section, and was able to complete both the development and the coda. In the summer of 1995, realising that Reeds book and the sketches it contained would be out of copyright in 2005, at which point anyone could legally construct the symphony, the family decided to commission from Payne a complete version. He then wrote out the full orchestral score of the first three movements and the beginning of the finale. It was while doing this that he became more consciously aware of the overall sweep of the symphony. It was different in its sheer breadth of emotion from any of [Elgars] other symphonic works. There was the raw vigour and magic lyricism of the opening movement, the use of a lighter manner in the second which went far beyond his established symphonic practice, and the searing intensity of the Adagio, tragic in its import, while the finale revealed a world of chivalric action and drama. All this was at the back of my mind as I faced the last and greatest obstacle: nowhere did Elgar leave a hint as to how his symphony was going to end. I had to compose the whole of the development section and the coda, much as in the first movement, but without helpful pointers, and I had to envisage the works ultimate goal the toughest assignment of all, involving visionary concepts if I was to be true to Elgars creative bravery.
Elgar wrote out the first seventeen bars of the first movement in full score, and also a nine-bar passage leading back to the exposition repeat; the remainder of the exposition is written in short score, more or less complete in harmonic texture and with occasional indications of the instrumentation. The magnificent, surging main theme in 12/8 and with prominent open fourths and fifths in contrary motion (music which sounds as if it has always been going on, as the sound of the sea, or the wind in the trees inevitable music in Reeds words) is balanced by a hauntingly lovely second subject (Cantabile, E flat major) on the first violins, which Elgar associated with Vera Hockman, a young violinist he came to know in 1931. Paynes version of the development (referred to above) makes use of various short motifs familiar from the exposition (notably the rhythmic ascending figure first heard on the first violins in bar 11) and the first subject itself. There are various changes of mood and tempo, and more emphasis is placed on the tonic key of C minor than there was in the exposition (only eight bars), though about two-thirds of the way through there is an important episode (Alla marcia, B flat minor) based on a single rhythmic bar sketched by the composer. The recapitulation curtails the first subject and re-introduces the second in the tonic major: a classical touch complementing the repeat of the exposition. Near the end, as Elgar put it, the two main subjects are skilfully combined.
The Scherzo (or as Elgar headed it, in place of Scherzo) is in the form of a rondo with two episodes and a coda. The refrain, in A minor, has a persistent chirrupping motif on the first violins which Elgar took from the incidental music he wrote in 1923 for Arthur. The episodes, in G and A major and, on the whole, more lightly scored, are separated by a return to the refrain (developed and expanded by Payne, who also adds discreet references to the chirrups in the coda).
The absence of any development sketches for the Adagio (in C minor) and the breadth of the material which the sketches have bequeathed to us, means that a development section would prolong the movement out of all proportion. We should be thinking of a bipartite structure, with an exposition and varied recapitulation. The first subject (of which Elgar said in a letter to Ernest Newman in December 1933 that he was fond enough to believe that the first two bars, with the F sharp in the bass, open up some vast bronze doors into something strangely unfamiliar) is the grand, sombre paragraph with which the movement begins; the second, prefaced by a short, gentle transition, here scored for muted strings, is its warm, expansive but shorter counterpart in D major. Payne felt that it would be appropriate to conclude this exposition with one of those Elgarian passages extraordinary moments of fantasy, dense with quiet activity, admitting that this was pure speculation on my part, but I went ahead and composed such a passage. The varied recapitulation brings the second subject back in E flat (moving to C), elaborating the fantasy, and ends with a desolate coda, whose final phrase on one viola, lightly accompanied, Elgar wrote out in pencil and showed to Reed as he lay dying: All he said (with tears streaming down his cheeks) was "Billy this is the end".
Anthony Paynes most formidable obstacle was to decide how the symphony was meant to end. Reed said that the finale was going to be "fiery" and "rugged"; certainly the opening is an unequivocal call to arms, and the first four bars give us the last remaining passage which Elgar fully scored. Combined with a busy arpeggio passage, it paves the way for a vigorous first subject, with a gentle pendant (or companion theme as Reed nicely described it). Elgars sketches contain three pages of material (all from Arthur) containing a number of interleaved themes as suitable for the second subject; several of these are combined here, and there is a closing section in 12/8. It was not even certain what basic structure Elgar had in mind for his finale, Payne writes in his Introduction, although I felt that the breadth of the expository material in the sketches pointed towards a sonata form. This could be enriched by incorporating into the development a ravishing G minor interlude whose placing in the movement is not precisely indicated in the sketches. As it now stands, the passage seems to have strayed from some rondo sub-stratum and yields a structural ambivalence which I hope is worthy of Elgars symphonic thought. As for the symphonys closing pages, I decided to dare all in honour of Elgars unpredictability. What if he had thought to place the haunting repetitions of The Waggon Passes from his recently completed Nursery Suite into a broader symphonic context? The finales main subject actually suggests this kind of treatment, and it would lead the music away into some new visionary world, spanning the years between the composers death and my attempted realisation of his sketches. I trusted my intuition and went ahead and wrote.
At the end of The Story of the Reconstruction Payne writes, of the closing bars: I also tied up one or two loose thematic ends to strengthen the web of the works symphonic dialectic. The allusion to the first movements open fourths in the Scherzos uncanny cadence is picked up with a further reference, given to the first violins over the final C minor chord. At the same time, the basses and bassoons quietly resolve the cadence which the solo viola had left hanging in mid-air at the end of the Adagio. Finally, with the whole of the rest of the orchestra silent, I left a quiet note from the tam-tam resonating in space, something of a personal signature I had ended a work of my own that way some years earlier but also a tribute to Elgars thematic use of percussion which had always fascinated me.
The score was published by Boosey & Hawkes to coincide with the first public performance (at which a hundred copies of the score were sold) by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis in Londons Royal Festival Hall on 15th February 1998.
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