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Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

The complete choral songs

Worcester Cathedral Choir, The Donald Hunt Singers, Donald Hunt (conductor)
2CDs Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: March 1987
The Chapter House, Worcester Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: December 1987
Total duration: 117 minutes 50 seconds

Cover artwork: Broadheath (Elgar's birthplace) by David Birtwhistle


‘Another invaluable issue from Hyperion’ (Music and Musicians)
Although Elgar liked to try to persuade his friends that his light orchestral pieces and partsongs were 'rot', composed in order to pay the household bilis, the truth is that he put much of himself into these smaller forms, which contain several masterpieces. He grew up at a time when people still made their own music, so that it was natural for a composer to turn to the partsong not only as a means of selling many copies of sheet-music but for the pleasure of providing worthwhile fare for small amateur choral societies up and down the country. The compositions on these recordings cover a span of time from 1889 to 1932, the forty-three years from Elgar's emergence from obscurity after his marriage until his final almost silent years when, as Master of the King's Musick, he preferred his dogs and going to the races to the world of music—or so he said. They are significant tributaries from the main stream of his larger works.

With the partsong My love dwelt in a northern land, composed in 1889 for Tenbury Musical Society, Elgar began his long association with the publishers, Novello's. The words—a medieval romance—are by Andrew Lang, author of The Yellow Fairy Book, who anticipated A E Housman in awkwardness over giving permission for his text to be set to music. When it seemed possible he would refuse it, Elgar's wife Alice wrote new words to fit the music, but Lang relented, though with a bad grace. The ballad-like words are atmospherically set and the superb central 'moonlight' melody is as unmistakably English Elgarian as that of the overture Froissart, which was about to be composed. The song, published in 1890, is an auspicious start to a long series.

Three years later carne the Spanish Serenade (Stars of a Summer Night), with accompaniment either for two violins and piano (as on this recording) or for small orchestra. For his text, Elgar this time went to this mother's favourite poet, Longfellow, who was also to be commandeered for the words of the cantatas The Black Knight (1893) and King Olaf (1896). With its guitar-like strumming, the Serenade evokes a sultry Spanish atmosphere, a recurring feature in Elgar's music from Sevillana to episodes in the late chamber music, notably the Violin Sonata. Elgar gave this partsong an opus number (23) and Novello's published it in 1892. It was first performed in Hereford in April 1893.

Although not published until 1896, O happy eyes dates from 1890 and was accepted by Novello's in 1894. The words are by Alice Elgar, not great poetry but charming of their period, and they stirred Elgar into a lyrical setting. The song appeared as Op 18 No 1, but No 2 curiously was not added until 1907, on Elgar's fiftieth birthday, 2 June. On that day—'trying to him, as usual', his wife noted—he set Arthur Maquarie's poem Love as a tender allegretto tribute to Alice's encouragement—'thou, when life was but a tomb, beamedst puré'.

Another reason for the demand for partsongs was the growth of the competitive music festival, particularly in the North of England. Just as brass bands competed for prizes with a "test-piece" which ali had to play in addition to works of their choice, so did the choirs, all-male, all-female and mixed. For example, the partsong As torrents in summer, (not included in this recording) which Elgar had incorporated into King Olaf, was a popular competition song. In November 1902 he completed five settings for maie voices of translations by English poets contributed to an anthology of Greek verse. These ambitious songs were first sung by the London Choral Society in the Royal Albert Hall in 1904 but they were aimed at the virtuoso compétition choirs and are strong in colour and humour. The pastoral scene of After many a dusty mile is fluently painted, while the whispered asides in It's oh! To be a wild wind are a fanciful touch. The first song begins like a vocal equivalent of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings of 1905.

The competition with which Elgar was associated was the Morecambe Festival. Its chairman was Canon Charles Gorton, Rector of Poulton-le-Sands in Lancashire, who in 1903 invited Elgar to write a test piece and to be an adjudicator. Elgar was not keen at first, but agreed. He was amazed by the standards of musicianship and he liked Gorton, later seeking his advice on aspects of his libretti for the oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom. But the 'musical soul of the Morecambe affair', as Elgar described him, was a local bank manager, R G H Howson, who died in the summer of 1905. Elgar at once composed a D minor setting of words by Coventry Patmore, which he called Evening Scene, in Howson's memory; an exquisite piece, indeed a masterpiece. It was sung at the 1906 festival. Sending it to A J Jeager at Novello's, Elgar remarked that it was 'my best bit of landscape so far in that line. You won't make anything of it on the pf.—Morecambe is the place to hear it'. Jaeger described it as 'a perfect gem' and likened it, not unjustifiably, to Schubert. The text is taken from Patmore's poem The River, always a suggestive inspiration to Elgar with his passionate love of Severn and Teme. At the end of the score he wrote 'Rotherwas', a spot along the Wye not far from his Hereford home, Plâs Gwyn.

While in Rome in February 1907, with Alice and Canon Gorton, Elgar composed the four partsongs of Op 53 which, in their almost orchestral brilliance and expansiveness, represent a major flowering of Elgar's genius in this genre. He was at this date beginning to think about the First Symphony. Each song is dedicated to a friend; the first, Tennyson's There is sweet music, to Gorton. This is by way of being a tonal experiment, since it is set simultaneously in G major and A fiat. Its rich texture is unsurpassed in Elgar's vocal music. Deep in my soul, Byron's poem, is dedicated to Mrs Julia Worthington, a wealthy American friend of Elgar with a villa in Italy. She is sometimes wrongly said to have been the 'soul' enshrined in the Violin Concerto of 1910. The setting is highly romantic and mysterious. O wild west wind (Shelley) is marked 'nobilmente' and, like the Byron song, centres on E fiat. 'With great animation but without hurry' is Elgar's direction to the singers. It remains a testing piece, requiring a skilled choir in top form. It is dedicated to W G McNaught, editor of The Musical Times and a fellow-adjudicator with Elgar at Morecambe. The last of the set, Owls, is the strangest and most chromatic. It is dedicated to 'my friend Pietro d'Alba', in other words White Peter, an angora rabbit belonging to Elgar's daughter Carice. The words are by Elgar who described this partsong as 'only a fantasy & (it) means nothing. It is in a wood at night evidently & the recurring 'Nothing' is only an owlish sound.' From which we may deduce that, far from meaning nothing, it meant a lot to Elgar at a deep personal level. The music is as eerie as the words—'A wild thing hurt but mourns in the night …… a bier spread with a pall, is now at the foot of the tree.' The word 'Nothing' is set as a falling semitone harmonised in minor thirds.

To the partsongs he composed in 1914 Elgar, at William McNaught's suggestion, gave the title 'choral songs', a recognition of their ambitious scope. The two which make up Op 71 are settings of the seventeenth-century mystical poet Henry Vaughan. They are dedicated to Worcestershire friends, a token of Elgar's homesickness for his native county now that, since 1912, he had lived in Hampstead. The music of The Shower is serenely innocent, that of The Fountain diatonic in the manner of many of his dream-pieces in which he pursues the idyll just out his reach. Both songs are connected with personal experiences. The Shower is inscribed 'At Totteridge', and we find in Lady Elgar's diary for June 1913 this entry: 'E & A for lovely taxi ride to Totteridge. E fishes for creatures. Lovely there, larks singing & water lilies coming out'. On The Fountain he wrote 'At Mill Hill'. He had been there with his friend Mrs Alice Stuart-Wortley and he wrote to her: 'I send you this very simple little thing for voices—only at the end I put Mill Hill to remind us of our afternoon when it was so cloudy & nice & lovely in the Church and Woking over the vale'. The words of Death on the Hills, Op 72, were adapted by Rosa Newmarch, the writer and authority on Russian music, from a poem by A N Maikov (1821-97) about Death selecting victims in a Russian village. The basses sing the part of Death while the rest of the chorus, divided, represent the villagers. The song is in D minor and is marked 'moderato (quasi alia marcia)'. It has a sinister flavour beneath an apparent simplicity—'one of the biggest things I have done', Elgar said.

The three unison or two-part songs for boys' voices and piano on this record date from 1932 and are settings of the Victorian poet Charles MacKay. They had been requested by a young Worcester schoolmaster, Stephen Moore. As he always did when the subject was related to the vanished weald of youth 'down by the river', Elgar responded with music that is both touching and telling.

The partsongs on the second record begin with two settings of poems by Alice Elgar, The Snow and Fly, singing bird, fly. The verses had first appeared as lyrics in her blank-verse narrative Isabel Trevithoe, published in 1878 before she met Elgar. He set them to music in November 1894 for women's (or boys') voices, with accompaniment for two violins and piano, and dedicated them to a Malvern friend, Mrs E B Fitton, mother of Isabel Fitton (the 'Ysobel' of the Enigma Variations). The poems are contrasted, winter and spring, and the settings are therefore tenderly lyrical and effervescent, a forerunner of the comparable contrast between the instrumental Chanson de Nuit and Chanson de Matin of a few years later. The Snow, an andantino, opens in E minor, moves into E major for the warmth of the earth, and builds to an impassioned G major climax before returning to E minor and the violins' falling semiquavers. It is a lovely setting, epitomising Elgar's secret way of undermining our emotional defences. For Fly, singing bird, fly the tempo is allegro and the key G major and all is airy and light. Elgar thought highly enough of these compositions to add a full-dress orchestral accompaniment in 1903.

On 8 December 1907, while they were in Rome, Elgar revived the two violins and piano accompaniment when he set another poem by Alice, A Christmas Greeting. They sent it home to Hereford for Dr G R Sinclair and his cathedral choristers who gave the first performance on New Year's Day 1908, The setting is for high voices, with optional tenor and bass parts and, like the Enigma theme, it is in G minor and G major. It contains a quotation from the 'Pastoral Symphony' in Handel's Messiah at the reference to pipers wandering far. Another product of late 1907 was the partsong How calmly the evening once more is descending, to words by T T Lynch, written for publication in The Musical Times. It is gentle and hymn-like or, to quote Elgar, 'homely but felt'.

When Canon Gorton of the Morecambe Festival offered Elgar £100 for a test piece for the 1903 festival, Elgar was slow to accept but eventually picked verses by the Manx poet T E Brown and wrote Weary Wind of the West, still a stiff test of a choir's intonation and control of dynamics and with a slight suggestion of 'Nimrod' in its main theme. Elgar went to Morecambe in Aprii to conduct the first performance before an audience of over six thousand people. After this visit Elgar, deeply impressed, wrote to Gorton an enthusiastic 'thank you' letter in which he used the phrases: 'It is rather a shock to find Brahms's partsongs appreciated and among the daily fare of a district apparently unknown to the sleepy London press: people who talk of the spread of music in England and the increasing love of it, rarely seem to know where the growth of the art is really strong and properly fostered: some day the press will awake to the fact, already known abroad and to some few of us in England, that the living centre of music in Great Britain is not London, but somewhere further North.' This letter found its way into The Musical Times and was emphatically not appreciated by the London critics, as Elgar probably intended.

With the rise of politicai nationalism in the face of the growing challenge from Germany, the chairman of Novello's, Alfred Littleton, asked Elgar for a 'marching song for soldiers' and kept sending him likely verses. Elgar was not at all keen, but eventually wrote one (Marching Song, to words by Captain de Courcy Stretton). However, his imagination was more keenly stimulated by the 'solemn-sounding drum' in Bret Harte's The Reveille, composed as a male voices test piece for the Blackpool competitive festival of 1908. This is one of Elgar's greatest partsongs, its taut rhythmic drive investing the whole composition with something of the nervous energy to be found in the second movement of the First Symphony.

Two more of the 1914 'choral songs' are Love's Tempest and the Serenade. The first is another translation of Maikov by Mrs Newmarch, and Elgar's setting begins 'adagio' and mounts to 'allegro con fuoco'. The poet compares the transformation of the 'sapphire océan' into 'seething billows' by a storm, with the effect upon his quiet heart of the image of his beloved which 'awoke a tumult wilder than the storm at sea'. The words of Seren ade are by 'Minski' [pseudonym of N M Vilenkin (1855-1937)] and the music is Elgar at his haunting best, stimulated as always by the reference to 'dreams ali too brief, dreams without grief, once they are broken come not again'. These lines, set to a rocking figure in D minor, recur with superb effect. The score is inscribed with another place-name, Hadley Green, near Barnet, a favourite locale for Elgar excursions.

The 1914 choral songs were the cause of a cooler attitude to Elgar at Novello's, where Alfred Littleton's younger brother Augustus was now the stronger voice. Elgar wanted a hundred and twenty-five guineas [£131.25] for the five songs of Opp 71, 72 and 73 and a royalty of 25 per cent. "The price is high, amounting to extortion", Augustus Littleton wrote to another Novello's executive, "but plenty of other houses would jump at the stuff at the price… I don't want any more Elgar symphonies or concertos, but am ready to take as many partsongs as he can produce, even at extortionate rates". Nine years later, with the war over and his wife dead, Elgar was made to feel even more that he was 'not wanted'. He composed two partsongs for male voices for the De Reszke Singers, American pupils of the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke. For The Wanderer, wistful in mood, he adapted a poem he found in the 1661 anthology Wit and Drollery. For Zut! Zut! Zut! he wrote the words under the pseudonym 'Richard Mardon'. Both texts evoke 'the days that are no more', even the march of Zut! Zut! Zut! ending pianissimo, for it is an 'old-time march-tune' and 'long, long ago the lads sang it so!'. Elgar asked a hundred guineas [£105] for the pair, but Novello's refused and agreed to publish them only as 'author's property', explaining that 'male-voice things' had a limited sale. (The music editor had given his opinion that Zut! Zut! Zut! was 'rather cheap for Elgar—cheap without being sufficiently interesting … Is the composer falling off in the value of his ideas?'). Elgar then changed his mind and asked for the songs to be torn up or returned to him so that he could do so. Henry Clayton of Novello's wrote a dignified response to say that "neither I nor anyone else here would wantonly destroy an Elgar MS., so if that is to be the fate of your two partsongs, you must apply the finishing touch yourself". But, he asked, why not let us publish them at our own expense for fifty guineas [£52.50]? And that is what happened. "Send us something for mixed voices or for women's voices, and the whole situation will be changed at once", Clayton wrote. But a year later the long association virtually ended, although Novello's published the 1925 partsong (ironically again for male voices), The Herald, Alexander Smith's poem about the death of an old king at the end of a victorious battle. The other partsong from this year, a mixed-voice setting of Walter de la Mare's The Prince of Sleep, was published by Elkin. It is music in Elgar's rapt style—'dreams haunt his solitary woods' is a line that must surely have taken him back to composing Gerontius in his country cottage in 1900.

Two of the songs in this collection are 'occasionai' pieces. In 1909 Sir Walter Parratt, Master of the King's Musick, asked Elgar for an anthem to be sung in January 1910 on the ninth anniversary of Queen Victoria's death. They are at rest is a setting of Cardinal Newman, the poet of The Dream of Gerontius, and in Elgar's hushed setting we may hear a ghostly anticipation of the mood of the Violin Concerto on which he was at work.Goodmorrow dates from 1929 and was written at the request of Sir Walford Davies for the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, to sing at a service celebrating King George V's recovery from a serious illness. The words are by George Gascoigne, a Tudor poet, and Elgar went to one of his own early hymn tunes for the music. He conducted the first performance, which was broadcast.

Undoubtedly the greatest of Elgar's works for unaccompanied chorus is Go, song of mine, composed at Julia Worthington's villa at Careggi, near Florence, in the spring of 1909. To cali it a partsong is almost to underestimate its grandeur. The words were D G Rossetti's translation of a medieval Italian poet, Cavalcanti, and the setting is in B minor, the key of the Violin Concerto, with a D major middle section at 'Yet, say, the unerring spirit of his grief shall guide his soul'. It is dedicated to Alfred Littleton of Novello's, who was in Florence at this time, too, and was with Elgar when news came from London of A J Jaeger's (Nimrod's) death from tuberculosis. Jaeger would surely have saluted this manifestation of Elgar's genius. It breathes the air of the Concerto and of the Second Symphony, both works stirring in Elgar's mind at this time, under the influence of his 'Windflower', Alice Stuart-Wortley, and the melody at the climax contrives both to suggest the 'stately sorrow' of those compositions and to be a quotation of the Liebestod in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Deep emotional waters here.

Michael Kennedy © 1987

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