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Featured Selection: Sir Edward Elgar--Overtures

The MHS Review 375 Vol. 10, No. 15 • 1986

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David M. Greene


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Froissart (1890) was something of a landmark in Elgar's burgeoning career. The only Elgarian orchestral piece that had won any notice up to that time was the transcription of a treacly piano piece Salut d'amour (Love's greeting) which won him a commission from the presti­gious Three Choirs Festival to do a work for the orchestral concert at Worcester that year. His inspiration came from Walter Scott's novel Old Mortality­--from a passage in which one of the char­acters praises Froissart's "historical romances."

Jean Froissart (ca. 1333-1400/01) wrote chronicles which were highly evocative of chivalric life in were the France of the Hundred Years War. For Elgar's purposes, the name of Froissart is mere­ly a key to the pomp and nobility he meant to express more abstractly. Much to his surprise, public and critics alike .admired it, finding in its composer a master of the great modern orchestra equal to any in Europe. Elgar, in fact, liked it himself: "What jolly healthy stuff it is," he said later.

The title of Cockaigne is punning. Cockaigne was the French Fool's Para­dise or Schlarajfenland where the liv­ing is easy and roast hens fall from the sky. But Elgar is depicting London, the land of the Cockneys (a word that ori­ginally indicated either misshapen or ef­feminate men). This overture, the work of a composer by now widely recog­naed, was immediately taken up by im­portant conductors all over the world. Elgar describes it as "honest, healthy humorous, and strong, but not vulgar."

In the winter of 1904 the Elgars vaca­tioned at Alassio on the Italian Riviera, between Nice and Genoa, and Edward lost his heart to Italy. In the South was an impressionistic record of that experi­ence. The transcription of the overture to Handel's Second Chandos Anthem was a work of Elgar's rather barren late years. Scored for huge orchestra, it will send the authentic-performance crowd into paroxysms of rage--and delight a good many others.

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