Elgar Symphony no. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 55

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis, or below with Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden

I’ll be honest: this is a work that really never made a single impression on me until I sat down to focus and read the score. And then it started coming through loud and clear as one of the most compelling, masterful symphonies I’ve ever heard, especially as a first symphony. For some reason, perhaps in the history and background of the work, or just my own misconceptions, I expected a very English sort of sound, something of quaint, rolling hills, the countryside, a babbling brook and folksong. But that’s not really what’s going on here. As far as pure, absolute music goes, Elgar has constructed a gripping four-movement work that justifies the overwhelming positive response it got.

The composer was already 51 by the time his first symphony was completed, in 1908, with ideas and basic concepts, although later abandoned, that dated back almost a decade prior to this work’s completion. By this time in his career, people had enough respect and admiration for Elgar and his work that talk of a symphony from his pen apparently “aroused enormous interest,” says Wiki. They knew that something great was to come.

His original intentions had apparently been to compose something akin to Beethoven’s original idea for his own third symphony. Elgar wanted to write a symphony in commemoration of General Charles George Gordon, but after a brief break from composing, a revisit to some works from his youth and a trip to Italy, the symphony he ultimately composed had nothing of the programmatic nature he’d originally wanted to present, but lacks nothing for it.

Interestingly, when the lightbulb went off for me with this work, my thoughts were on two composers. Actually three, sort of. The first was Bruckner, of all people. Elgar doesn’t present us with the idyllic, quiet polite sound of the English countryside. I found the music to be big (indeed, this symphony is about an hour long!), craggy, at times broad, and others dense and complex. But the work opens up and breathes eventually, the way I heard it, and a likeness to Bruckner gave way to similarities to Brahms in its presentation and absolute musical nature. The other one, to whom other people also likened Elgar here and there, is Strauss, who was one of the most successful composers of the time. We don’t have a lot to compare them to in an ‘apples to apples’ manner, since so much of Strauss’s big works were programmatic, but Elgar’s use of tonal color and orchestration are really quite grand.

But let’s stick with thinking about Brahms, because it was in fact about Brahms’s third symphony that the composer was speaking in a lecture:

in which he said that when music was simply a description of something else it was carrying a large art somewhat further than he cared for. He thought music, as a simple art, was at its best when it was simple, without description, as in the case of the Brahms symphony.

It’s sometimes so liberating to stop thinking about what this means or what that  represents and just focus on how brilliant the internal structure and development are, the use of themes and all those musical things and how they work together to make a real genius work, thinking in terms of a musical palette rather than an emotional one. My initial lack of feeling to this work became, not goosebumps or tears or some overt emotional response, but a cerebral one, an awe of the masterful qualities of a work like this, a deep respect for its genius. I don’t think of Brahms’s fourth as a beautiful symphony as much as it is a stunning work of genius, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some overlap. If I had to attribute some nonmusical terms or themes or qualities to the overall ‘personality’ of this work, it would be a certain kind of resilience, persistence, a sort of headstrong determination, even in its slow movement.

So here we go. Four movements, and about 55 minutes of playing time. That’s no small symphony, and it was absolutely a huge, roaring success from the get go, and is still performed regularly in the U.K., although less elsewhere.

I. Andante. Nobilmente e semplice — Allegro
II. Allegro molto
III. Adagio
IV. Lento — Allegro

The first movement presents what might be the most English-sounding thing here, a ‘noble’ slow theme that kind of begins out of nowhere, a calm, majestic kind of thing that eventually gives way to the allegro marking of the first movement, and here we are, then, on an exciting journey with truly propulsive energy, at times nervous, others placid, but with a compelling narrative. This is epic music, the kind of work that grows and expands from itself to form a huge sound world, but we have Strauss-ian elements like snippets of solo violin or cello, when the nobilmente returns. This is a first movement that’s easy to get swept away by, wrapped up in, especially in either of Davis’ performances above. It’s hefty, a movement (and work) with real substance, no agenda other than to be very good music. The movement, after this enormous, craggy, expansive journey, ends quietly.

The second movement is maybe the most English thing of the whole symphony. Instead of giving us a standard-fare scherzo, we get something much more like a march, and the shortest movement of the symphony. There’s an injection of tragedy or heightened conflict in this movement, with crashes and even warlike parts, but the trio (or what would be a trio were this movement an actual scherzo) is ethereal and bouncy, far more genial than the march that borders on menacing. We again get little snippets of solo violin here, managing the bigness of this music with fine detail in orchestration.

Exquisitely, the second movement winds down, cools off, and morphs into a new atmosphere and key, but essentially based on the same material, a single variation on the second movement’s theme, to present us with a broad, wholly tranquil movement, maybe welcomed by this point. There’s no heightening of tension, no infusion of conflict, but a wholly placid, easy-breathing thing of beauty, a nice rest from the intensity we’ve had so far. It’s interesting, then, to see how the movement progresses without the use of such strong contrasts; it’s like Elgar’s version of Mahler’s adagietto.

The finale doesn’t shock us awake. It remains quiet, but the mood is quite different, calling back to the first movement, like echoes in a dreamland. It doesn’t take long to spring to life, though, in a hurried, restless fashion, but never chaotic. We’re back to the intoxicating, compelling forward motion of the first movement, the impression that this music has an urgency to communicate something, but nothing other than itself. We have another march theme that’s perhaps the most powerful, climactic triumphant thing in the entire symphony, that tells us, “aha, we are nearing the end.” It’s driving and commanding but without any of the menace of the second movement.

As if this splendid finale wasn’t enough to show us his compositional chops, Elgar rounds the whole thing out by bringing back the nobilmente opening of the first movement in the light of this triumphant, epic ending. I’m a sucker for a cyclical symphony, I should say, and this symphony, by the time it’s finished, is revealed to be a towering, powerful, masterfully crafted work of genius, on par with any of the great late Romantic symphonies.

Like I said last week, this earlier work, from a decade and 30 opus numbers earlier than his string quartet, there’s a vibrance and strength in this work. I suppose it’s difficult to call it a youthfulness, since he was already beyond 50, but it’s a very handsome piece, and a hell of a first symphony, perhaps one of the most impressive first symphonies I’ve had the pleasure of coming to know. I don’t know why it took me a number of listens to appreciate this work, but if you’ve got any kind of appreciation for Brahms or Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, anything like that (but conservative), Strauss, for sure, then this work should be a wonderful journey for you.

It can be a little frustrating to come around and realize you’ve been ignorant of something like this for so long, like it was a missed opportunity… but how nice today to have things like YouTube and streaming services (as long as they play full works!), iTunes, all of that.

Spoiler alert: this is only one of the factors that resulted in a feature later this year on the blog for English composers, so do stay tuned for that. I feel a little bit bad that we’ve already discussed Elgar’s first here and not as part of a series, but it’s a truly magnificent work no matter how you look at it.

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