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Elgar's greatest part-songs were written specifically for the competition festival movement and he produced them more or less throughout his career, the first to be published being My love dwelt in a Northern land, from 1890 (marking the beginning of his association with the publishers Novello). But it was realized that the term 'part-song' might cause people to underestimate their size and quality so by 1914 they were being described as 'choral songs'. Their scale and range vary enormously.
Elgar’s first published part-song dates from 1890 and marks the beginning of his association with the publishers Novello. It was a cautious and rather inauspicious start from their point of view; they offered no money to the composer, merely a hundred copies in lieu of copyright. When My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land (track 3) first appeared, it was said to be ‘crude, ill-written for the voice, laid out without knowledge of the capabilities of the human voice &c &c!’, as Elgar told his friend Jaeger many years later. Yet it is a fine song, despite a conventional setting. In the third verse the melody is given to Soprano and Tenor I, while the other parts sing the words to a repetitive, rhythmic motif – an ‘accompaniment’ device Elgar later used in two of his greatest songs, Death on the Hills (track 9) and Serenade (track 14). One might also note in passing that Lang’s poem has the theme – popular in Victorian times and frequently used by Elgar – of youthful love, often unfulfilled and/or brought to an end by premature death.
During the 1890s Elgar wrote several accompanied part-songs, including the choral suite From the Bavarian Highlands (1895); but apart from a small part-song for The Musical Times, and As Torrents in Summer in the cantata King Olaf in 1896, Elgar did not return to unaccompanied part-songs until 1902, when he accepted a commission from the Morecambe Festival. He had been involved in musical competitions before, at Madresfield near his home at Malvern, but Morecambe was a different case altogether, generally considered the finest and certainly the largest in the country at that time. The Festival president, Canon Charles Gorton (who later advised Elgar on the librettos of The Apostles and The Kingdom) persuaded Elgar to attend the Festival and to adjudicate in some of the competitions. In October 1902 he completed a part-song, Weary Wind of the West (track 21), for use as a test-piece. On 28 December Elgar sent a copy of the new song to Arthur Johnstone, music critic of The Manchester Guardian and leading advocate of Elgar on the Morecambe executive, adding: ‘You are somewhat responsible for the enclosed. Lay it amongst your crimes. The thing is not bad perhaps and there are not many partsongmongers’ harmonies. ’Twill serve.’ And serve it did, becoming enormously popular among competition choirs. It is an absolutely perfect test-piece, starting easily, giving singers time to settle, and becoming more demanding and contrapuntal in the central section as the ‘wind’ picks up; and after the climax at ‘Came with a bound to the hill’, it declines slowly around the repeated word ‘Fell’. The opening tune returns, and then just before the end Elgar gives the sopranos a top G ppp on the word ‘all’, very difficult to execute and a real test for any choir.
About the same time in 1902 he was also working on a series of male-voice songs to translations of the Greek Anthology (tracks 4 to 8). As a young man Elgar had served as accompanist at the Worcester Glee Club, and his biographer Basil Maine (whose book is largely based on interviews with Elgar himself) wrote: ‘On occasions young Elgar wrote music, not only for the soloists and the band, but also for the glee party. These five part-songs have all the air of having been written for one of these almost masonic occasions, if we allow for the maturing of style which has naturally taken place meanwhile … They are written so that a group of singers such as those who performed at the Worcester Club could sing them not only with comparative ease but with zest.’ Most of the songs are quite short, perfect miniatures, and expertly crafted; the biggest song, Feasting I Watch, can sound a little overblown at times, but is an effective piece nonetheless.
Elgar was impressed by the musicianship of Robert Howson, who conducted the Morecambe Madrigal Society and had made it one of the finest choirs in the country. Elgar called him ‘one of the best men I ever met’ and ‘the musical soul of the Morecambe affair’. After Howson’s premature death in 1905 Elgar completed a part-song, Evening Scene (track 22), in his memory. He may well have written it also to compensate his friend Canon Gorton for having to miss the 1906 Festival (he had conducting commitments in America at the Cincinnati Festival). At its first performance at the 1906 Festival Samuel Langford of The Manchester Guardian called it ‘… a highly original bit of writing, a singularly faithful translation into tone of the drowsy, dreamy atmosphere of evening in the fields and its subdued sounds’.
In late 1907 the Elgars went to Rome for the winter. He was trying to write a symphony, although he was neither very well nor at peace with himself, and was constantly beset with requests for small-scale works. Alfred Littleton of Novello wanted ‘a marching-song for soldiers’; F G Edwards, editor of The Musical Times, asked for a setting of a hymn entitled How calmly the evening; and Elgar’s old friend Sinclair had requested a Christmas carol for the cathedral choir at Hereford. No wonder Elgar wrote to Frank Schuster: ‘I am trying to write music, but the bitterness is that it pays not at all & I must write & arrange what my soul loathes to permit me to write what you like & I like.’ Yet as well as completing all his commissions, he found time over Christmas 1907 to compose five of his finest part-songs – the four Opus 53 songs for mixed voice; and The Reveille (Op 54, track 19) for male voices. This last – a large-scale, impressive setting, lasting almost as long as the five Greek Anthology songs put together – had been commissioned by William McNaught. However, in view of his protestations to Schuster about wanting to get on with the real work of the symphony, it seems strange that he chose to spend time on four very elaborate and ambitious songs. It appears that he selected the words of the first three (by Tennyson, Byron and Shelley) and wrote the fourth – Owls – himself. The first song, There is Sweet Music (track 15), dedicated to Gorton, Elgar called ‘… a clinker & the best I have done’. It broke new ground by being written in two keys at once, the men’s part in G and the ladies’ in A flat, and it remains an extreme test of difficulty for a choir. Initially amateurs avoided it; when it was given its first public performance in the Open Choir class at the 1909 Morecambe Festival, only five choirs entered, instead of the usual twenty or so. But an ecstatic Gorton wrote to Elgar, on holiday in Italy:
Oh my friend, what a wonderful man you are, and with what a stupendous gift; as one of the papers said, it is no light thing for me to see my name on the finest part-song ever written. I found several of the conductors in fear about the result, but when Barrow started under Mrs Bourne, the thing unfolded itself in its consummate beauty and the audience were entranced. Nothing else was talked of. Walford Davies said it opened out new possibilities in music …
The second song, Deep in my Soul (track 16), is a heartfelt setting of words by Byron; and as the song is dedicated to an American lady, Julia Worthington, known as ‘Pippa’ to Elgar’s circle, some have sought for a deeper meaning in the words, especially as Mrs Worthington has been suggested as the ‘soul’ ‘enshrined’ in the Violin Concerto, written two years later.
O Wild West Wind (track 17) is dedicated to Dr W G McNaught, doyen of competition adjudicators, who had served with Elgar at the 1903 Morecambe Festival (for which Elgar had written Weary Wind of the West, also in E flat). Though marked with the familiar Elgarian nobilmente, the composer added a note: ‘with the greatest animation but without hurry’. It is impassioned music, as befits words in which the poet begs the wind to inspire his efforts in order to bring his message to the world: ‘Be through my lips to unawakened earth The trumpet of a prophecy!’. For Elgar, deep into writing his long-awaited symphony, the words must have had a particular potency.
The final song of the opus, Owls (track 18), is probably the strangest that Elgar ever set. It is very chromatic and there are some weird harmonies. Jaeger said that it baffled analysis and he knew ‘nothing like it. The words … are as strange and vague as the music … It is frankly nihilistic … and the music deepens the gloom’. However, he found it ‘as full of genius as anything Elgar has done’. The composer had told Jaeger: ‘It is only a fantasy & means nothing. It is in [a] wood at night evidently & the recurring ‘Nothing’ is only an owlish sound’. The sense of despair heard by Jaeger is surely correct, however, and makes one imagine that Elgar’s ‘What is it? … Nothing’ is an attempt to cover up something deeply personal which he was unwilling to explain.
The stimulus for the composition of these Opus 53 songs remains a mystery. They were not commissions or suggested by his publishers, and there is nothing at all in the correspondence or Alice Elgar’s diaries relating to their composition. At the end of each song is written ‘Rome, Dec., 1907’ (except for Owls which has added the date ‘Rome, Dec., 31, 1907’). Alice’s diary notes work on The Reveille from 20 to 26 December, and it is hard to imagine Elgar writing four songs of this magnitude in only five days. Though not officially written for Morecambe, or indeed any festival, Elgar must have had large competition choirs in mind. In fact There is Sweet Music and O Wild West Wind were premiered at Morecambe in 1909, while two others – The Reveille and Deep in my Soul – were first sung at the Blackpool Festival in 1908; and as already mentioned, two of the dedicatees had direct Morecambe links.
The greater complexities of the Op 53 songs meant that they did not enjoy the popularity of some of Elgar’s other part-songs. Ronald Taylor’s valuable research (‘Music in the air: Elgar and the BBC’; in Monk, Raymond (ed.): Edward Elgar: Music and Literature, Aldershot, 1993, pp.351-5) into Elgar’s works broadcast in his lifetime (that is, during the period 1922 to 1934) shows that O Wild West Wind was sung three times, There is Sweet Music and Owls once each, and Deep in my Soul not at all.
Marginally more popular, with ten performances, was Elgar’s next and greatest part-song, Go, Song of mine (track 10), also written in Italy, this time at Careggi in April 1909. The words, a translation by Rossetti of a medieval Italian poem, again have a distinctly autobiographical ring; the author’s ‘song’ is sent out ‘To break the hardness of the heart of man’. To what extent Elgar applied them to himself we can only speculate, but he certainly gave it ‘a big setting’, as he wrote to Gorton. In fact he asked Novello to produce it as a separate work; ‘that is to say in the usual yellow cover & not in the part-song book: I should propose to put ‘Go, Song of mine’ Chorus (unaccompanied) in six parts &c &c & drop the part-song altogether. It would, I feel sure, be better for the future of the work’. However, Novello did decide to include it in the part-song book, perhaps fearing that to classify it as a separate choral work might deter some choirs. It was premiered at the 1909 Three Choirs Festival at Hereford and was soon taken up by the major competition festivals as another excellent and taxing test-piece.
The quality of these songs, contemporaneous with the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto, was recognized from the outset. Jaeger wrote: ‘[Elgar] has done nothing of a similar kind equal to them in beauty of idea, individuality of expression and workmanship, swiftness and certainty of touch, in masterly knowledge of effect.’ Michael Pope has written: ‘These works … may indeed be accounted amongst the finest ever written for unaccompanied voices’; while Diana McVeagh noted: ‘From now on, Elgar’s choral songs are elaborate, expansive, and gorgeous as sheer sound … In the adventurous use of texture, colour and interplay of sonorities these songs are markedly original.’
W G McNaught realized that the term ‘part-song’ might cause people to underestimate their size and quality and when Elgar next came to write a group of part-songs in early 1914, McNaught suggested the description ‘Choral Songs’. Though not quite sustaining the same level of excellence as the 1907-1909 pieces, these are also wonderfully crafted songs. By this time a formal split had taken place between Novello and Elgar, although they were still interested in anything he produced. Elgar asked for 125 guineas plus a royalty of 25% for the five songs, Opp 71, 72 and 73. On 6 February 1914 Alfred Littleton wrote to Henry Clayton, the company’s secretary: ‘The price is high amounting to extortion, but the point is that plenty of other houses would jump at the stuff at the price … If the part-songs catch on we shall make money … If people grumble we must quietly let them know the higher rate is owing to the composer’s greed … I don’t want any more Elgar symphonies or concertos, but am ready to take as many part-songs as he can produce even at extortionate rates.’
By this time the Elgars had moved to London, and despite enjoying the advantages of living in the capital, Elgar found himself missing the West Midlands. Three of the five dedications are to people from Malvern, Worcester and Hereford; while three of the songs bear the names of places in outer Middlesex and Hertfordshire, still rural in those days, and indicative of Elgar’s need for the countryside to stimulate creativity. The two Opus 71 songs, to words by Henry Vaughan, are exquisitely written, deceptive in their (relative) simplicity. In The Shower (track 1), the altos and tenors have semiquavers against the tune’s quavers in a couple of places, suggesting the ‘train of drops’ of the title. The second song, The Fountain (track 2), refers to a stillness in nature (‘all the earth lay hush’); but then, ‘Only a little fountain lent Some use for ears’. The music of nature was always a potent force for Elgar: as a boy he had been found lying by the River Severn, ‘trying to fix the sounds’ as he wrote many years later.
The largest song of this group is Opus 72, Death on the Hills (track 9), a translation of some grim words by the Russian poet Maykov, concerning Death stalking a village looking for victims. In the second half of the song, the three upper parts sing ‘with a thin and somewhat veiled tone’ some repetitive lines representing the villagers. In the midst of this enter the basses, representing Death. They have not sung for seventeen bars, and their entry, although only marked mezzo forte, can be chilling if sung with the correct intensity. Although by no means the longest of Elgar’s part-songs, he told one of his friends that it was ‘one of the biggest things I have done’.
Another translation of Maykov provided the words of the first Opus 73 song, Love’s Tempest (track 13). Each verse begins quietly and slowly before a great outburst allegro con fuoco, representing first a storm at sea, and then a ‘tumult’ in the poet’s heart created by a mental image of his loved one. The song’s companion, Serenade (track 14), has a repetitive refrain, ‘Dreams all too brief, Dreams without grief, Once they are broken, come not again’; ideal for a composer preoccupied with dreams, and whose precarious emotional equilibrium was being constantly threatened.
When Elgar next came to write part-songs, nine years later, his world had changed. The last year of the war had stirred his creative gift to something approaching its best, to produce the chamber works and the Cello Concerto; but the death of his wife in April 1920 was a crushing blow, and he found many of the changes of the post-war world difficult to adjust to. It was not until 1923 that he began to compose original music again, when his friend the critic Robin Legge requested two part-songs for an American male-voice ensemble, the DeReszke Singers. Elgar responded with The Wanderer (track 11), to some seventeenth-century words he found, and to which he added an opening stanza of his own. As Jerrold Northrop Moore put it, ‘[he] created a poem which reflected astonishingly his own mood since his wife’s death’. The nostalgic tone is set in Elgar’s own opening verse, which speaks of wandering through woodlands, and ‘tuning a song’ among the trees; but later he wanders into the wilderness and eventually faces up to death. The second song, Zut, zut, zut (track 12), a ‘marching-song’, was set to some words of his own written under the pseudonym ‘Richard Mardon’. Over the repeated syllable of the title, the song celebrates the ‘lads’ who ‘fiercely fought for freedom’. The nostalgic note is present: ‘shall we forget our old-time march-song? The lads sang it so, Long, long ago’. The final words speak of ‘Glory to them and a fame’, but there is no triumphal ending, the march fading into silence.
However, the estimation of Elgar by Novello had also changed in the intervening years. John West, the music editor, found The Wanderer ‘at times rather ordinary in character’, and Zut, zut, zut ‘rather cheap for Elgar – cheap without being sufficiently interesting’. It is hard to understand such judgments now, for The Wanderer in particular is one of Elgar’s finest achievements in this medium. He was deeply hurt when Novello turned the songs down, and suggested that they ‘just tear up the M.S.S. – or return them to me & I can do so’. In the end a compromise was reached, and Elgar was paid fifty guineas for the two, which was half of his original asking price. Novello tried to sugar the pill by complaining of the lack of sales of male-voice songs: ‘Send us something effective for mixed voices, or for women’s voices, and the whole situation will be changed at once.’ Yet two years later Novello published another male-voice part-song, The Herald, while a mixed-voice song was brought out by Elkin. This was The Prince of Sleep (track 23), to words by Walter de la Mare. The languid setting captures masterfully the Lethean sentiments of the words; imagery of dreams and the natural world (especially woodland) always seemed to inspire Elgar. Dark hues also characterize The Herald (track 20), about a ‘grim old king’ going to his death, having ‘won a rich kingdom’, but now ‘in the sunset he was ebbing fast’. One wonders to what extent the world-weary composer, who had ruled the English musical kingdom some fifteen years earlier, was picturing himself in these words.
In Elgar’s own lifetime some of his part-songs achieved great popularity. Ronald Taylor’s research shows that in particular As Torrents in Summer, After Many a Dusty Mile, Feasting I Watch and The Wanderer were all broadcast regularly. The descent into obscurity of this repertoire was due as much to the decline in a cappella singing as to the slump in the composer’s reputation. Few of the part-songs were recorded at all before the late 1960s, and none of the greatest ones (with the single exception of The Shower, by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir in 1950). Their increase in popularity over the last thirty years has been accompanied by several excellent recordings; yet most of these employ choirs of no more than thirty voices. In the first real review of Elgar’s part-songs, in The Musical Times in 1938, Percy Judd wrote:
A group of [these songs] sung by a large choir would be an impressive addition to a programme of the highest class … Sung in the Queen’s Hall, or other building of similar size, the bigger unaccompanied songs … would sound to the greatest advantage. There would be no danger of their being dwarfed by their surroundings since they are mostly built on big lines. Some, indeed, can be effectively performed only by a big body of voices … The English musical tradition is above all a choral one, and the English composer usually turns early to writing for unaccompanied chorus and approaches the orchestra later. A natural consequence is that his use of the orchestra is often influenced by his choral writing. With Elgar the reverse is the case, for the orchestral basis of his musical thought manifests itself throughout his choral songs. It is partly this which makes them so full of technical interest.
There is abundant evidence that Elgar himself supported the notion of large forces. Choirs at the Morecambe Festival were usually over fifty strong, and some of the largest approached eighty. When addressing a conference of choral conductors at Morecambe in 1904 he said: ‘You can get a better, broader and more emotional effect out of eighty voices than you can out of fifty, however finished the fifty might be.’ At the 1907 Festival Elgar conducted the combined male choirs (comprising more than two hundred voices) in his Yea, Cast me from Heights from the Greek Anthology set, which had been used as a test-piece that year. Samuel Langford wrote in The Manchester Guardian: ‘The singing had the same unity as the separate choirs. As the piece is very short and the expression ranges from the most profound piano effects to the most abrupt fortissimo, the unity was wonderful.’ Elgar wrote to Canon Gorton, who missed the Festival through illness: ‘I wish you could have heard the combined men’s choruses sing ‘Cast me’ on Saturday evening: not because it was the best thing to hear but because it was a new idea, unpremeditated & effectual.’ In 1912 Elgar conducted the Leeds Philharmonic Society with its 320 voices in The Reveille and Go, Song of mine.
The modern preoccupation with authenticity in musical performance usually leads to a reduction in forces. In this recording we can hear these wonderful songs sung by a superb chorus of symphonic proportions conducted by one of the greatest Elgarians of the present day. The composer would surely have approved.
Geoffrey Hodgkins © 1998