Elgar's Belated Symphony: Majestic, Noble And Perfectly British

May 5, 2012
Originally published on May 6, 2012 9:26 am

When Edward Elgar unveiled his first symphony in 1908, it was hailed as the greatest British symphony ever written. The London papers were ecstatic.

The Morning Post wrote, "This is a work for the future, and will stand as a legacy for coming generations; in it are the loftiness and nobility that indicate a masterpiece." The Evening Standard said, "Here we have the true Elgar — strong, tender, simple, with a simplicity bred of inevitable expression. ... The composer has written a work of rare beauty, sensibility, and humanity, a work understandable of all."

For all that good press, Symphony No. 1 isn't heard so much these days, especially in the U.S. (But I'm doing my part to remedy that situation!) Still, there is music by Elgar that has transcended time and place to become part of the fabric of our lives.

If you've ever attended a graduation ceremony, you've undoubtedly heard Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1, which has become synonymous with the occasion.

Those qualities that make "Pomp and Circumstance" the perfect graduation march — majestic, noble and regal with a sense of occasion, tradition and gravitas — are the same qualities that permeate all of Elgar's music.

He may not be a Beethoven or Mozart, but Elgar's music endures. Conducting his symphonies in England, as I did when I was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, is a very rare treat. Elgar's emotional spectrum is remarkably broad and his music offers many challenges and even more rewards. For me, Elgar is all about tempo and pacing. It's like the lesson one learns about the graduation march: It has to be just the perfect tempo to work seamlessly.

The British Brahms

Another way I look at Elgar sometimes is to think of him as the British Brahms.

Like Brahms, Elgar came to writing symphonies surprisingly late in his career. Fans of both composers, in their day, waited eagerly for news of a symphony, and just when everyone had practically given up, they each confounded the odds and wrote one. Brahms was in his 40s, but Elgar was already 51 years old when his Symphony No. 1 premiered. That's partly why both he and Brahms wrote far fewer symphonies than Beethoven, Haydn or even Mahler.

Elgar shares even more with Brahms, in terms of having one foot in the past while looking bravely toward the future. Like Brahms, Elgar respected and honored tradition while valuing structure and melodic beauty. In his first symphony, which pushed the envelope in length and development, Elgar incorporates a kind of tone poem approach of the time, weaving thematic unity throughout the piece, very much as Brahms did in his Symphony No. 3. Elgar was able to take what was new in 1908 and put it into a very traditional model, thereby changing both ends of the spectrum.

And Elgar was not afraid to be forthright and overtly sentimental, a criticism sometimes also directed at Brahms' music. Yet, like Brahms, he had a wonderful sense of humor that is evident throughout his compositions. He even wrote a 40-second cantata in praise of cigars called the "Smoking Cantata."

The result is that Elgar's music is thoroughly British: stately, noble, admirable, dramatic, lyrical and always effortless. Just like that "Pomp and Circumstance" march.

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Here's a piece of music you'll hear a lot over the next couple of months.


SIMON: Doesn't it remind you that today is the first day of the rest of your life? A lot of people call this "The Commencement Theme," or "Pomp and Circumstance." It's actually "March No. 1 in D" by English composer Sir Edward Elgar. It's a section from his set of marches called "Pomp and Circumstance." The piece is undoubtedly Elgar's best-known work, but it's his "1st Symphony" that was immediately hailed as the greatest British symphony.


SIMON: The Halle Orchestra premiered Elgar's "Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major" in 1908, and we're listening to a recording by that group, conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

Later this week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by music director Marin Alsop will perform the piece, and the maestra joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, it's a pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Something about the music just, you know, reminds me that education is a journey, not a destination, not a goal.


SIMON: But this first movement we're listening to now actually has very similar feel to "Pomp and Circumstance" - kind of the same swinging, striding cadence. Is there a connection?

ALSOP: You know, it's interesting listening to them back to back. I feel like the "1st Symphony" is more for graduate school. You know what I mean? There is a sense of maturation and arrival. But, of course, the fact that they're both marked in an andante tempo, which means a walking tempo, and they have this sense of occasion and nobility. And just hearing that music makes you sit up straighter or stand up straighter, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: And so I definitely think there are characteristics about Elgar's music - and maybe even British music in general - that bring us feeling of tradition and history and nobility, you know, which undeniably is related to the fact of their history being a monarchy.

SIMON: Well, and you do use words like occasion and nobility. Is this all necessarily a British sound because every country in Europe more or less had a monarchy?

ALSOP: That's true. You know, that's an interesting question. I think though, for British composers there is a shared history about music written for occasion.

SIMON: Yeah. Yeah. Like weddings, births, major battles. That sort of thing.

ALSOP: Yeah. All those good things. And the British composers were particularly adept at capturing the mood sense of occasion and Elgar certainly is at the pinnacle of that achievement.


ALSOP: You know, I always like to try to put myself in the year in which a piece was written. So this is 1908 and Elgar has not written any symphonies yet. He's 50 years old. So there's a real sense of anticipation about this piece. And, you know, you have to think at the time - so Mahler's writing symphonies but many composers have abandoned - as they do cyclically - the form of the symphony, saying it's outdated, outmoded. But Elgar really wants to take that traditional form and somehow imbue it with his own sense of proportion, majesty, thematic unity.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit of the "2nd Movement."


SIMON: Now, has the sound of horses massing you for the battle commences.

ALSOP: It does, doesn't it? I really think that's a hallmark of all great British music. There has to be some kind of battle music always. But, of course, at the beginning of this movement it sounds rather furtive and, you know, sneaking around and this is a very traditional form. We should say that having the "1st Movement" and then followed by a scherzo movement, which this is, but, of course, this sense of the military and the battles, that is interwoven into this movement.

SIMON: Scherzo is Italian for hiding from the French?


ALSOP: Or at least playing a joke on the French.

SIMON: Let's listen if we can to the "3rd Movement," the very top of the "3rd Movement."


SIMON: This is when the smoke is clearing and the sacrifice is assessed.

ALSOP: Aw, it's so beautiful, isn't it? I really think this is one of the most gorgeous movements in the history of orchestral music, if I dare say that. And the amazing thing, he has taken that little opening of the "2nd Movement," the scherzo movement, and he's slowed it down really exponentially. It's the exact same music. You can't recognize that immediately unless you actually go through and study the notes. But there's something that you feel. There's a unity about the piece. And I think the brilliance of turning that scherzo motive, which was so furtive and evasive, into this emotional, straightforward, lyrical melody is quite amazing.


SIMON: Maestra Alsop, the music that people listen to in 2012, is Elgar sometimes a little schmaltzy?

ALSOP: I don't know. There's something to be said about some good schmaltz every now and then. I wouldn't say schmaltzy. I would say perhaps he's naive in terms of that sophisticated, emotional spectrum and conditions that we live under today. But I think there's something so special about a sentimental naivete that each of us can relate to. And maybe it's refreshing for me anyway to get back to that sense of melody and beauty of line that Elgar brings to us in this symphony.

SIMON: Let's listen to one more movement. And this starts off kind of darkly.


SIMON: I mean, you just know something's going to happen.

ALSOP: Definitely. You know, it's all about narrative. Music is so much about narrative. And I think Elgar is a great storyteller, particularly in this symphony. It also sounds very contemporary at the beginning, doesn't it?

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: Because you can't really tell the key center and so you can easy be at least say ah, this feels like at least 20th century music.

SIMON: When we assess the great composers of great symphonies - Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler - do you put Elgar in the pantheon?

ALSOP: I think the brilliance he exhibits in the two symphonies that he completed, since he started writing symphonies so late in life - even later than Brahms, who was pretty tardy on that front - he didn't get to complete his third symphony, so it's so hard to judge that microscopic output compared to, you know, the nine Beethoven symphonies, the nine and a half Mahler symphonies. But I find these pieces really stand on their own, they make a statement. You feel that they're British through and through, and yet they're universal. So I feel very strongly about these pieces. I hope to bring them more often into the repertoire because I think the audiences really respond to them.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And they will perform Elgar's "Symphony No. 1," May 10th through 13th.

Maestra, always a pleasure. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: Great pleasure to talk to you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: And you can read Marin's essay on Elgar and hear more of "Symphony No. 1" on our website, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.