Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was 50 years old before he began what was to become his first symphony. It was not, strictly speaking, his first attempt at a symphony: he had actually composed a symphony modeled on Mozart as an exercise 30 years earlier (only one movement survives), and in 1898 took a stab at a programmatic symphony based on the life of the English military-imperial hero General Gordon, which, fortunately, did not get far.
Any composer approaching the symphony after Beethoven might well have had some trepidation about it. Brahms’ difficulties with his first symphony were legend. By the early 20th century, there was the additional problem of whether the symphony’s day had passed. Though some composers of Elgar’s generation were moving away from the symphony, Elgar remained convinced that it was still viable. In a 1905 lecture at Birmingham University, he said
“It seems to me that because the greatest genius of our days, Richard Strauss, recognizes the symphonic-poem as a fit vehicle for his splendid achievements, some writers are inclined to be positive that the symphony is dead… but when the looked-for genius comes, it may be absolutely revived.”
A few years later, Elgar took it upon himself to be the “looked-for genius,” and the result was a staggering immediate success: the Symphony was performed about 100 times worldwide within a year after its premiere in December 1908. It has not done so well since, and is now only an occasional visitor to the standard repertory.
The Symphony might be regarded as a battle, a study of opposites in conflict: the stately versus the agitated, the singable diatonic melody against the sinewy chromatic theme, the foreboding against the triumphant. At the very outset, Elgar pens one of his most stately melodies (he already had four of the five “Pomp and Circumstance” marches behind him). Elgar uses the unusual key of A-flat major for this introduction and “motto” theme, but does not stay there long. The tumultuous Allegro begins in D minor, a key as far as possible from A-flat (Elgar wrote to his friend August Jaeger that he had “thrown over all key relationships as formerly practiced” but that he “was not silly enough to think (or wish) that I have invented anything” in the process), with the motto inserting itself, and its mood, into the storm, and eventually establishing calm at the end. Throughout the symphony, Elgar uses a peculiar device to insinuate motifs such as the motto in an almost subliminal way: he writes them as “solos” for the players on the last stand of a string section. He commented:
“I have employed the last desks of the strings to get a soft diffused sound: the listener need not be bothered to know where it comes from — the effect is of course different from that obtained from the first desk soli.”
The second movement is another kind of battle. A turbulent main section, (in another distant key, F-sharp minor) features a driving perpetual motion figure and an ominous quick march. It modulates to B-flat major, where gossamer strings, flutes, and harp play an idyllic interlude that Elgar said should be played “like something we hear down by the river.”
The perpetual motion figure reasserts itself, but gradually slows until, improbably, it becomes, note for note, the principal theme of the Adagio third movement. Both Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere, and August Jaeger, a longtime champion of Elgar’s music, compared this movement to the adagios of Beethoven, though to modern audiences it will more likely recall Mahler in its breadth, heart-on-sleeve passion, and richness (a richness which is due considerably to Elgar’s subdividing the strings into nine parts instead of the usual five).
The finale begins with another slow introduction, in D minor, in which a foreboding opening gives way to a minor-key march figure in the low strings and bassoons, and then to the motto theme. Elgar gives the march figure a series of startling transformations, including thundering it out fortissimo and turning into a lush cantabile. At the end, the motto theme emerges triumphant over hammer blows from the brass and percussion, the battle clearly won.
— Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts. His notes have appeared in the program of the Salzburg Festival.
Length: 50 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, two harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 29, 1926, Sir Henry Wood conducting