|About this Recording
8.557710 - ELGAR: Music Makers / Sea Pictures
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Edward Elgar was born near Worcester. By the age of ten he had composed music for a family play which years later became incorporated into the Wand of Youth Suites (1907, 1908). Apart from violin lessons he had no formal musical training, but from the age of sixteen he began to earn his living as a freelance violinist, teacher, organist and conductor. Marriage in 1889 marked a significant step forward in his career since in Caroline Alice Roberts he found a remarkable partner who recognised his genius and supported his ambitions. A brief period in London trying to establish himself as a composer proved desultory and forced a return to Worcestershire. In the 1890s, however, he became widely known in the provinces through his overture Froissart (1890), and with a series of choral works including Caractacus (1897-8).
National prominence was finally secured by the success of the Enigma Variations (1898-9) and although the première of The Dream of Gerontius (1899-1900) was a disaster, subsequent performances revealed it a masterpiece. During the years prior to the First World War, Elgar's achievements continued with works like the oratorios, The Apostles (1902-3) and The Kingdom (1901- 6), the two symphonies (1904, 1907-8), (1905-11), the Violin Concerto (1905, 1909-10), and the tone poem Falstaff (1913). In a lighter vein his Pomp and Circumstance marches (1901-1930) brought his name to every strata of society.
To the war years belong the choral The Spirit of England (1915-17), and then a final harvest, composed in the rural quietude of Sussex, brought his major chamber music, for example, the Piano Quintet (1918-19), as well as the Cello Concerto (1918-19). With his wife's death in 1919, Elgar's creative spirit died too; thereafter he composed only fitfully, producing the Nursery and Severn Suites (1930) but nothing else of consequence.
Elgar identifed intensely with the sentiments of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's ode The Music Makers, which propounded that artists are the real creators and inspiration for mankind and the true makers of history and society. Sketches for it date from the turn of the century, but the final impetus to complete it was a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Festival. Elgar conducted the première on 1 October 1912 with Muriel Foster as soloist. Even though his mastery of orchestral and choral writing is evident throughout, the critics received it tepidly, complaining both about the quality of the poetry and Elgar's use of quotations mainly from his own works.
Yet in the context of the poetic conceit, it was quite logical for Elgar to do so. Furthermore he had a worthy precedent in the 'Works of Peace' section of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, where his friend had made a feature of self-quotation too. Significantly Elgar had attended the British première of the work in December 1902, the time when he was first sketching ideas for The Music Makers. In reality the quotations only take up a small proportion of the work; moreover they are brilliantly integrated. In describing the music Elgar wrote that its atmosphere 'is mainly sad; but there are moments of enthusiasm, and bursts of joy occasionally approaching frenzy; moods which the creative artist suffers in creating or in contemplation of the unending influence of his creation.'
An orchestral prelude introduces the two principal themes of the work, the first a passionate, restless melody (marked with Elgar's characteristic description 'nobilmente'), the second a tranquil rising phrase played by the violas and cellos. Shortly after the Enigma theme occurs twice. Elgar explained that he incorporated it here 'because it expressed … my sense of the loneliness of the artist as described in the first six lines of the ode'. The hushed chorus, personifying the 'music makers' themselves, enters to a phrase, which Elgar described as representing the 'artist'. At 'dreams' the Judgement motif from The Dream of Gerontius is quoted, whilst 'sea breakers' aptly brings a hint of Sea Pictures, followed by two more references to Enigma. To stirring music the second stanza takes wing and at 'We fashion an empire's glory', Rule Britannia and La Marseillaise are woven into the music.
Much of the music of the third stanza has the character of a stately processional. After a climax midway with a nod in the direction of Gerontius' demons, and a full-bodied passage for the chorus, it ends with a further quiet intonation of the 'artist's' theme. Led by the second main theme, the fourth stanza begins in calm tranquillity but rises to a climax with the voices in unison over a pedal point thundering in the bass. The contralto soloist enters, her music musing on the second main theme, until at the words 'But on one man's soul', 'Nimrod' from Enigma is quoted. Here Elgar alludes to his deceased friend August Johannes Jaeger of the publishing house Novello, whose belief in the composer's greatness never wavered. The 'Nimrod' melody is translated into a superb choral panoply with the contralto riding high above it and the section concludes with a quotation from the Second Symphony. Plunging into urgent music, soloist and chorus hurtle along during the sixth stanza culminating in the return of the 'artist's' motif cried out, almost ecstatically, and leading to a choral fugato. The seventh stanza starts with pastoral, lilting music, but again builds quickly to a climax, but subsequently in gentler music, there are references to Enigma, and towards the end, the Violin Concerto. In the penultimate stanza another recollection of the 'artist's' theme is heard before the music swells as a quotation of the motto theme of the First Symphony is reached to produce a thrilling outburst of choral glory. Finally to music based on the second theme, the contralto in the last stanza leads to further reference to Jaeger as 'the singer who sings no more', and the passage 'Novissima hora est' from Gerontius is heard; before the chorus's final soft utterance of the 'artist's' motif.
Sea Pictures followed in the wake of the triumphant first performance of the Enigma Variations in June 1899, which turned Elgar, virtually overnight, into a composer of national repute. The work was commissioned by the Norwich Festival to be sung by a young contralto who was also destined to become a household name - Clara Butt. Elgar conducted the première on 5 October 1899 and wrote to a friend that Butt had 'dressed like a mermaid', and to Jaeger that 'She sang really well.'
The starting-point for the cycle had been a song composed in 1897, which set words by Elgar's wife, and had been published under the title Lute Song the following year. For the new work, she amended the words to make the sea reference stronger and to the new title, In Haven added, in parenthesis, Capri, which she had visited before she met Elgar. Around this he gathered four more poems with sea allusions which were all composed in July 1899. Much of the success of the settings lies in the superb orchestration, which deftly creates colours that heighten words and images of the poetry. In the third and fifth songs, Elgar recalls themes from the first, so creating a sense of unity within the work. Sea Slumber-Song opens with a typically Elgarian phrase (the same that is quoted in The Music Makers) suggestive of waves rising and falling, and under 'I, the mother mild', an undulating figure on strings evokes an image of a gentle sea swell. In Haven is graced by a caressing melody typical of Victorian salon music charm, whilst Sabbath Morning at Sea is marked by two melodies. The first, played by the orchestra in the opening bars, is rather Wagnerian, but the second, heard at 'Love me, sweet friends this Sabbath day' is Elgar at his most characteristic. The rocking figure from Sea Slumber-Song recurs several times as well as that song's opening phrase. Where Corals Lie is wholly delightful with its wistful melody and light, airy orchestral textures featuring short solos for violin and cello. The Swimmer is the most ambitious song, with Elgar integrating and interchanging the material from verse to verse. The setting is a mixture of dramatic recitative-like narrative and lyrical arioso. The main melody, of an Elgarian 'nobilmente' cast, appears in the orchestral introduction and later dominates the music. Other features to listen out for are a sly hint of In Haven and a final glance back to Sea Slumber-Song with a variation of its contrasting middle section at 'The skies were fairer'. With a vigorous coda the cycle is brought to resplendent end, as if in a flurry of spray and foam.
The Music Makers, Op. 69
 (Introduction: Moderato)
 We are the music makers,
 With wonderful deathless ditties
 We, in the ages lying
 A breath of our inspiration
 They had no vision amazing
 And therefore today is thrilling
 But we, with our dreaming and singing,
 For we are afar with the dawning
 Great hail! We cry to the comers
Sea Pictures, Op. 37
 Sea Slumber-Song
Sea-birds are asleep,
I, the Mother mild,
Isles in elfin light
Sea-sound, like violins,
Ocean's shadowy might
 In Haven
Closely let me hold thy hand,
Closely cling, for waves beat fast,
Kiss my lips, and softly say:
 Sabbath Morning at Sea
The ship went on with solemn face;
The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
And though this sabbath comes to me
He shall assist me to look higher,
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long
 Where Corals Lie
The deeps have music soft and low
By mount and mead, by lawn and rill,
Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
Thy lips are like a sunset glow,
 The Swimmer
With short, sharp violent lights made vivid,
Only the crag and the cliff to nor'ward,
A grim, gray coast and a seaboard ghastly,
Love! Love! When we wandered here together,
The skies were fairer, the shores were firmer -
So, girt with tempest and wing'd with thunder
One gleam like a bloodshot sword-blade swims on
O brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop
I would ride as never man has ridden
Close the window