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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, 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 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, 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.
from notes by Geoffrey Hodgkins © 1998
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