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So Brilliant And Fresh!

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

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If you know Elgar's work you'll certainly want this music; if you don't, this is a very good place to start.


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Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wasn't born into royalty; his father was a jack-of-all-­musical-trades (piano tuner, church organist, music shop proprietor). The family was raised Catholic--a decided disadvantage for any major career in severely Protestant Eng­land at the time, and Edward was the fourth of seven children. His education was local and his formal musical training, due to the lack of funds effectively non-existent. He did receive lessons in violin and piano, and of course he soaked up all the music around him. His father's shop, the sounds emanating from the church's organ loft, or local performances gave Elgar much-needed practical experience. At 15 Elgar took a job with a so­licitor, but within a year he was bored and frustrated and decided to follow his first love and become a free-lance musician. He worked as his father's assistant as church organist and began playing violin around his native Worcester. He taught privately, he added the bassoon to the instruments he already played and he began conducting as well. In 1882 he became the conductor of the Worcester Amateur Instrumental Society and a "first" violinist in W.C. Stockley's orchestra in Birmingham.

Elgar had always composed (since the age of ten) but now began to turn to the creative art more than performance. In 1886 Elgar extended his teaching practice to Mal­verne, where he met the best influence on his life and composing career, Caroline Alice Roberts. Alice, a piano student, was nine years Elgar's senior, a Protestant, and the daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts. She was also an accomplished writer who had a command of German and sang in a choir-not your typical Victorian maid. The relationship blossomed; Alice converted to Catholicism and married Elgar in 1889. The couple moved to London to help estab­lish Edward as a composer. Some small works were published, but his first real break came not from London but his hometown, with an orchestral commission from the Worcester Festival. Of the resulting Froissart Overture, Elgar later wrote: "It is difficult to believe that I wrote it in 1890!--it sounds so brilliant and fresh!" (These accurately posi­tive words are interesting, coming from the unusually self deprecating individual Elgar was throughout his life.) Keats' references to the historian Jean Froissart provide the inspiration for the work, and are quoted at the top of the score: "When Chivalry/ Lifted up her lance on high." The work displays as much nobility as, in Elgar's words, "rude young health."

Elgar's first London "hit," in 1897, was the Imperial March, and with the Enigma Varia­tions two years later his popularity soared. A year later he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge and saw the premiere, and failure, of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. That year also saw the composition and premiere of the delightful Cockaigne (In London Town) Overture. In a letter to German conductor Hans Richter, Elgar describ- ed this musical depiction of turn-of-the century London as "honest, heal­thy, humorous, and strong but not vulgar," and he is again accurate, if not understating.

Elgar's mother died in 1902; he was al­ready depressed over his temporary inability to compose a symphony and his disenchant­ment with Birchwood, his retreat near Mal­verne. Edward and Alice went on holiday to Italy in late 1903, settling in Alassio, only to be assaulted by the "cold, rain, and gales." Work on the symphony still proved fruitless, but the change in scenery-weather and all --and Byron's thoughts on Italy in Childe Harold ("the garden of the world") inspired him. He wrote In The South (Alassio), now considered one of his finest shorter works. In 1904 Elgar received the ultimate English tribute, knighthood; it had been only a mat­ter of time.

Alice's death in 1920 devastated Elgar and marked, for him, the end of an era. The time of sensitivity and refinement was being re­placed by the garish and vulgar "Roaring Twenties." Composition dwindled down to short occasional works. Written for the 1923 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, Elgar's orchestral transcription of the Overture to Handel's Second Chandos Anthem was such a work, but don't take it lightly. This is much ­loved music, and the orchestration combines the best of Handel's and Elgar's esthetics.

The digital recording here is exemplary, and Sir Alexander Gibson conducts the Scot­tish National Orchestra with panache and at­tention to detail. If you know Elgar's work you'll certainly want this music; if you don't, this is a very good place to start.

Composer Steven L. Rosenhaus is a regular contributor to MHS. Of his own music, the New York Times recently said it was "clever, deftly constructed, and likable."

his article refers to the release of Elgar Overtures performed by Alexander Gibson on Chandos.

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