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Organ Sonata in G major, Op 28

'Elgar: Enigma Variations & Organ Sonata' (CDA67363)
Elgar: Enigma Variations & Organ Sonata
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Movement 1: Allegro maestoso
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Andante espressivo
Movement 4: Presto

Organ Sonata in G major, Op 28
Elgar’s Organ Sonata, Op 28, was the outcome of a request from Hugh Blair, organist of Worcester Cathedral, for a new piece to be played on July 8th 1895 when a group of American organists would be visiting the cathedral. As soon as Elgar had sent off the final number of Op 27 (Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands) to Novello on April 10th, he turned his attention to the sonata, sketching out the second movement that same day. However, on June 22nd, Hugh Blair visited the Elgars to find a work still very much in progress and it was only a concentrated week of effort which saw the work completed, albeit still in a fairly rough state with alterations and corrections. The score was finally handed over to Blair at luncheon on July 3rd, leaving the unfortunate man just a few days to prepare it for the first performance. Elgar, somewhat misleadingly, had written on the manuscript: ‘Friday June 28, 9 pm. Finished the Sonata July 3, 1pm (one week’s work)’.

Hugh Blair duly gave the first performance, and Rosa Burley, headmistress of The Mount School in Malvern where Elgar taught violin, described it as follows: ‘His performance of the Sonata showed that he had either not learned it or else had celebrated the event unwisely, for he made a terrible mess of poor Elgar’s work. I was present at this débacle and commiserated with the Genius. But with a splendid flash of loyalty he refused to blame the murderer who, he said, had not had time thoroughly to study the victim’. Despite this, the Organ Sonata was something of a landmark, representing Elgar’s most substantial work of a symphonic nature to date. Indeed, it has been referred to as ‘Symphony No 0’ following the fine orchestration by Gordon Jacob premiered on June 4th 1947 on the BBC Home Service. This was the result of a commission by the publishers, British & Continental Music Agencies, who had acquired the copyright in 1941 from Breitkopf und Härtel of Leipzig; Novello, in the first instance, refused to publish it complete fearing its difficulty would deter potential buyers.

The dedicatee was not Hugh Blair but Dr Charles Swinnerton Heap, who was a great supporter and advocate of Elgar’s work as well as being a brilliant pianist and organist, composer and conductor. He successfully pleaded Elgar’s case at a meeting of the North Staffordshire Festival Committee when he proposed King Olaf for the forthcoming season. In response to their objection that Elgar was unknown to them whereas Edvard Grieg had already written something on this subject, Heap replied: “Yes, but the composer who in years to come will stand head and shoulders above Grieg is Edward Elgar”. There is sadly no record of his observations on the sonata which might have given us further insight into the work.

Elgar made a tonal plan for the sonata: (1) Allegro G major; (2) Intermezzo in G minor; (3) Adagio B (flat); (4) Finale G minor and major. This was a revision of his first thoughts which reversed the order of the second and third movements: the version we know allows the Adagio to follow straight on from the Intermezzo and helps to emphasize the major/minor contrasts. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with music which is undoubtedly ‘nobilmente’ Elgar: it is powerful with a broad sweep and is clearly another thought on the opening music of The Black Knight. Both are in triple time and in G major, ‘Allegro maestoso’, with more-or-less identical rhythmic features. A transitory theme of less intensity heard above gently chugging repeated chords brings calm and the introduction of the second subject group in an easy flowing 9/8 time. The development section shows Elgar’s love of counterpoint (he is reported to have played something from ‘The 48’ every day) and demonstrates his skill in canonic writing as well as seamless combination of themes.

The second movement, Intermezzo, was the first part of the sonata to be written and was completed in a day. It is quite likely a reworking of an already existing piece, for a number of reasons: (1) Elgar’s notes state that the organ sonata Intermezzo was ‘Koppied’ on April 10th 1895; (2) the right-hand figuration is unusually awkward for a keyboard player; (3) the left-hand melody is perfectly in range and eminently suitable for a cello; (4) the staccato pedal part could easily be played by pizzicato doublebasses; (5) in the lighter middle section, again the left-hand melody is not the most comfortable for a keyboard player whilst fairly idiomatic for a cello – the sketches show attempts to improve this situation. This gentle movement is a fairly straightforward ternary structure with the preparation for the return to the opening music of interest. The sketches show various thoughts on the matter which did not necessarily produce the most satisfactory harmonic result in the penultimate bar. The C sharp at the bass of the harmony on the last quaver of the bar is a repeat of that on the second quaver and, as a result, is considerably weakened. C natural is preferable: it follows and harmonizes with the ‘alto’ voice and is a solution favoured by Herbert Sumsion (of whom Elgar famously said after “John’s” first Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester in 1928: “What at the beginning of the week was assumption has now become a certainty”). It is also adopted on this recording.

The highly expressive third movement follows on almost immediately with just a simple three-chord progression easing us into B flat major and the announcement of a broad, expansive melody which again has its origins in cello music. The hushed ‘tranquillo’ section which is reached by means of a delicate enharmonic move into F sharp major is beautifully crafted and, together with the first theme, combines to make this the heart of the work and a forerunner of the mature slow movements of the violin concerto and the symphonies. Elgar had originally planned a slightly larger-scale movement with the return of the opening expansive melody building up, in a similar way to the first time, into a fortissimo D minor climax (with Tuba stop) before dying down and slipping back into B flat major for a return of the ‘tranquillo’ music as we know it. These sixteen bars are disappointingly never heard, but their omission on structural grounds is probably justified – unlike, perhaps, the tempo and time signature change from Adagio 4/8.

The last movement is a sonata-form structure with the two main ideas providing a contrast between restless rising and falling first inversion triads in the minor key mainly in a quaver/two-semiquavers rhythm and a lyrical, lighthearted tune in the major key with dotted rhythms, rests, and larger than usual interval leaps. The development reintroduces the first theme from the slow movement which later provides a triumphant blaze of G major at the high point, marking the start of the coda. Here Elgar’s contrapuntal skill is again in evidence with the combination of the movement’s two main ideas in G major, a state which is slightly threatened within sight of the finishing line by the reappearance of E flats in mid-texture.

from notes by Keith John 2003

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