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Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)


Huddersfield Choral Society, Orchestra of Opera North, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: April 2018
Huddersfield Town Hall, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2019
Total duration: 96 minutes 2 seconds

Cover artwork: Satan summoning his Legions (1796/7) by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)
© Royal Academy of Arts, photograph by Marcus Leith

Elizabeth Llewellyn Eigen
Elgan Llŷr Thomas Orbin
Roland Wood Caractacus
Christopher Purves Arch-Druid, A Bard
Alastair Miles Claudius

The centuries do indeed ‘roll away’ as the libretto addresses questions of empire—Roman and Victorian—and Britain’s place in the world. But that shouldn’t detract from the music; this is simply glorious and worthy of the mature Elgar.


‘This [recording], with the Orchestra of Opera North and the Huddersfield Choral Society under the impassioned baton of Martyn Brabbins, is truly excellent. It’s good to hear Elizabeth Llewellyn, one of our foremost lirico-spinto sopranos, getting an opportunity to record a major role, as Eigen … no Elgarian will want to be without this excellent issue’ (The Mail on Sunday)

‘Martyn Brabbins, a true specialist of late Victorian repertoire … brings an electricity and Straussian Schwung to the orchestral sound throughout this recording, whether in the vibrant marches of scene 1 (‘Watchmen, alert!’), the processional march of scene 4 (the best-known part of the cantata) or the delicious ‘woodland interlude’ … there are some fine performances here from the soloists … the well-prepared Huddersfield Choral Society, appropriately attuned to their role as turba, provide a range of sensitive light and shade, as well as muscular tone, to the varying dramatic contexts, and a crisp counterpoint to the orchestra’ (Gramophone)

‘Brabbins has the measure of the piece and leads his forces in a superbly convincing account. The Huddersfield Choral Society sing splendidly for him, as does the uniformly excellent quintet of soloists. Elgan Llŷr Thomas and Elizabeth Llewellyn are especially touching, while in the title role, baritone Roland Wood is on terrific form’ (Choir & Organ)» More

‘Superb singing by the Huddersfield Choral Society … Martyn Brabbins directs a vigorous and characterful account’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘The choral singing is excellent, soloists are well cast, the recording itself is a beauty, and Brabbins makes perfect sense of everything. This new Caractacus goes to the top of the heap for me’ (BBC Record Review)

‘The overall effect of the performances is as fine as one would expect from such distinguished artists’ (Cathedral Music)

‘Highlights include the delightful Woodland Interlude in which 'the trees are singing my music', the love-duet of Eigen and Orbin, and the splendid Imperial March that opens the final scene’ (New Classics)» More

‘A key work in Elgar’s development towards the genius that soon was to produce Gerontius and ‘Enigma’. It also contains a significant amount of very good music in its own right. This very fine performance enables us to appreciate its stature’ (MusicWeb International)» More

‘The Huddersfield Choral Society are quite magnificent on the new issue. Contemporary critics rightly raved about the London Symphony Chorus on the Chandos discs but the Yorkshire choir seem earthier and less studio-bound than their illustrious predecessors, an approach which somehow humanises a work which can often seem lofty and over-worthy. The Orchestra of Opera North are responsive accompanists and give the LSO a run for their money. If the trademark Chandos spaciousness is still impressive after twenty-odd years, the Hyperion sound is terrific too—similarly detailed, but arguably more spontaneous and exciting. Martyn Brabbins … makes a noble, cogent case’ (MusicWeb International)

‘Elgar’s Caractacus is now (finally) elevated … an absolute treat … throughout Brabbins sets perfectly judged tempos, the music journeys forward with a palpable sense of drama and occasion yet also with a persuasive flexibility, the big moments relished and with many subtleties of scoring and dynamics arresting the ear’ (Classical Source)» More

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Caractacus is the final work in a series of choral compositions by Elgar dating from the 1890s: The Black Knight (1893), Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands (1896), The Light of Life (1896), King Olaf (1896), The Banner of St George (1897) and Caractacus (1898). All preceded the Enigma Variations of 1899 which were to set the composer at the centre of British musical life. Before this Elgar had enjoyed increasing success and recognition in musical centres such as his birth city of Worcester and Hanley in the West Midlands which gave the premiere of Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf. A London performance followed several months later. Caractacus was to be no exception, the premiere being given at the Leeds Music Festival of 1898 and the first London performance taking place the following April. The Variations were different: the great conductor Hans Richter agreed to conduct the premiere in London in June 1899 and Elgar’s reputation was made. Self-taught, Elgar did not have sufficient contacts or a reputation big enough to project his music on a national stage until the brilliance of the Variations became self-evident. Caractacus can be seen as a ‘stepping stone’ to greatness but, with the advantage of hindsight, a modern listener should not be surprised by the quality of the music and Elgar’s use of the orchestra, the brilliance of which had already set him apart from his contemporaries.

Two years before Caractacus, Elgar had set King Olaf, one of the Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) which relates the story of Norway’s first Christian king whose life ended in defeat and death. A choral epilogue celebrating the Christian faith concludes the work. In The Banner of St George, his 1897 setting of words by Shapcott Wensley (1854-1917), Elgar followed the killing of the dragon with another epilogue. The chorus celebrates England’s flag (the Cross of St George) and the ‘Great race, whose empire of splendour has dazzled a wondering world!’ The death of the dragon could be celebrated but how to end Caractacus positively was a challenge for librettist and composer. Caractacus’s fate is more nuanced than that of Olaf for he, too, suffers defeat but is then ignominiously dragged to Rome in chains. There, with his family, he is allowed to live out the remainder of his life. This was hardly an ending to inspire a red-blooded son of Empire, and Elgar and his librettist followed Wensley’s example and concentrated on the benefits of an Empire for those living under the three crosses of the union flag. This fed into the average late-Victorian’s view of themselves: few of them could have imagined that their own Empire, like that of Rome, would have begun to ‘crumble into clay’ in less than fifty years.

The first British hero
In the first century Britain was ruled by local chieftains and Caractacus, on succeeding his father, began expanding his territory in Eastern England. In AD43 the Roman Emperor Claudius (AD41-54) despatched four legions to invade Britain. Claudius followed with supporting forces but stayed for only for sixteen days. At first, from his base near modern Colchester, Caractacus successfully harried the Romans before being driven westwards where, Tacitus tells us, he led the Silures and Ordovices tribes against the Roman forces. The location of Caractacus’s final battle in AD51, after eight years of defiance, is unknown but it is unlikely to have been in the Malvern Hills but further north-west in modern Wales.

After his defeat, Caractacus was taken to Rome with his family where he was allowed to address the Roman senate, during which his eloquence—and presumably the glory that reflected on the Emperor in defeating such a powerful enemy—won him the limited freedom of living in Rome. Tacitus reports Caractacus ending his speech with the words: ‘… if you preserve me safe and sound, I shall be an eternal example of your clemency’.

The composition
During the early part of 1897 Elgar’s mind was on other possible subjects such as ‘The Flight into Egypt’ but the seeds of the idea for what eventually became Caractacus were sown in the February when a friend suggested subjects ranging from St Augustine to Ancient Britons and the Druids. It was in the summer, however, that Elgar found his subject. His mother was staying at Colwall on the west side of the Malvern Hills which gave her a view of the highest point, the British Camp 1,100 feet above sea level. The ancient legend that Caractacus’s last stand took place there inspired Ann Elgar and she suggested to her son that he ‘write some tale about it’. There was no suggestion that this was to have anything to do with music, but her idea eventually fired Elgar’s musical imagination as he contemplated his next composition.

Any possibility of working on music that summer was far from his mind when a sudden holiday in Bavaria intervened. With his family he was away for nearly a month before returning in time to correct the parts of the Te Deum and Benedictus before their first performance on 12 September in Hereford. Eventually, in December 1897, an invitation to compose a choral work for the Leeds Festival the following year arrived: ‘I hear that nothing save the merest accident will prevent my being asked to contribute a Cantata to the Leeds fest’, Elgar wrote, and so it was that he was committed to the composition of Caractacus.

Three years earlier Elgar had sought the assistance of Henry Arbuthnot Acworth in editing and writing additional material for his setting of King Olaf, and it was to Acworth that Elgar turned again to write a setting of the Caractacus tale. Acworth, now a retired Indian Civil Servant living in Malvern, had had a distinguished career working in Bombay where he had translated and published a number of Indian ballads under the title Ballads of the Marathas. For Caractacus Acworth drew on sources such the Roman historians Dio Cassius and Tacitus, but the libretto is his own. He kept the characters to a minimum, inventing both Orbin and the Bard and consolidating Caractacus’s children into one, a daughter Eigen. In doing so he created an opportunity for a romance between Eigen and Orbin.

Elgar worked closely with Acworth and began work on the first two scenes in early 1898. On 4 April he sent Scene II to his publisher, Novello, delaying Scene I as he was considering writing an overture. Time was beginning to run short as, for the first of many occasions, Elgar and his wife Alice rented Birchwood Lodge at Storridge. This afforded a view of the Malvern Hills as they rose southwards towards the British Camp. The peace of the surrounding woodlands contributed to Elgar’s inspiration and by 12 June Caractacus was complete. He began the orchestration a week later, even considering the use of four ‘beautiful and expressive’ saxophones at one stage. By now the Leeds Chorus was clamouring for the music so that rehearsals could begin before the summer holidays. The orchestral parts were eventually ready for the first rehearsals in London on 27 and 29 September. Elgar obtained permission to dedicate Caractacus to Queen Victoria and he conducted the first performance in Leeds on 5 October.

The music
In Caractacus Elgar makes use of phrases or ‘leitmotifs’. This is clear from the opening bars, the rhythm of which reappears from time to time, notably during the first two scenes. As Elgar did not make any reference to the use of leitmotifs there is a danger in being too specific, but the listener will identify motifs such as that in the orchestra at the chorus’s opening words: ‘Roman hosts have girdled in our British coasts’. This ‘Britain’ motif occurs throughout the work, notably underpinning the Arch-Druid’s command ‘Go forth, O King, to conquer’ and again as Caractacus ends. A ‘Rome’ motif is clear too, but above all Caractacus celebrates the pastoral: Elgar’s love of his home landscape distilled through Acworth’s words such as ‘On ev’ry river’s swelling tide’ (following a vison of the Roman yoke) and ‘The air is sweet, the sky is calm, All nature round is breathing balm’ (as Caractacus pauses by the Spring of Taranis). Caractacus may lament his defeat but Elgar’s music in Scene V underlines the sense of loss of country and its beauty, and in Scene VI Eigen and Orbin reminisce of home as they stand before their conquerors in Rome.

Caractacus opens to wary, ominous music (Scene I), the chorus of encamped Britons urging their sentries to keep alert as distant Roman fires remind the watchers of past battles and the one to come. Caractacus enters and, after celebrating nature, recalls his struggle and his hope for ‘one last endeavour’. The key changes from E flat to G major as Eigen arrives followed by her betrothed lover, Orbin, a member of the half-priestly order of minstrels. The scene ends with the ‘Spirits of the Hill’ invoking rest for the ‘weary monarch’.

In Scene II the Druids have gathered and a mystic dance is taking place. The key is F major, with a ‘small gong’ adding to the mystery. The Arch-Druid calls upon Taranis (the equivalent of Jupiter) to foretell the future. Orbin is ordered to read the omens and declares them to be unfavourable. Concerned at the Roman threat to destroy his order, the Arch-Druid withholds the truth from Caractacus: ‘Go forth, O King, to conquer’. Caractacus, inspired, tells his soldiers to ‘Wake to the Light!’. Orbin’s protests are dismissed by the Arch-Druid and, casting away his harp, he flees to join Caractacus, the curse of ‘apostate’ ringing in his ears. The pastoral atmosphere resumes with an orchestral prelude to Scene III. With this ‘Woodland interlude’ (the title from an old sketchbook) Elgar distances the listener from the action, before returning to the reality of Orbin’s plight as he tells Eigen of the Arch-Druid’s deceit. They sing of their love (Elgar’s only love duet) and the hoped-for peace to come. The ‘Woodland interlude’ meant much to Elgar, who supervised a recording from his deathbed in January 1934.

Eigen and a group of maidens listen to rumours of defeat (Scene IV) before soldiers burst in telling of how ‘the living trod the dead’. The key changes from F major to the more intimate D major for Caractacus’s great lament, ‘O my warriors’. In the unusual metre of 7/4, the lament reflects what W B Yeats later called Elgar’s ‘heroic melancholy’. In Scene V a bard and druidesses watch captives embarking on Roman galleys, their lives forever separated from ‘British heav’n, or land’. It is the orchestra that leads the change of mood from sadness (F major, andante, mesto) to triumph as the music segues attacca into Scene VI (C major), Elgar’s brilliant orchestration adding rich colours to the march as it changes to E flat and back again to C major. The chorus describes the scene and the arrival of the Emperor who invites his prisoner to plead his case. As Caractacus sings of peace, liberty and of his love of his country, the key changes to the warmth of G major. The chorus demands his death but Claudius grants Caractacus and his family ‘grace’ and the right to live in Rome. Eigen, Orbin and Caractacus sing of their gratitude, their love of home and their ‘golden chain’ of imprisonment before the members of the chorus, no longer baying Romans but advocates of Empire, look to the future when imperial responsibilities would rest on their shoulders. Caractacus concludes as ‘The light descends from heaven [and] The centuries roll away’.

The ‘epilogue’
Although not identified by Elgar as an ‘epilogue’, the change from the C major allegretto to the E flat allegro and the words of the chorus as it sings of ‘glorious ages coming’, suggest the finale should be treated as such. Having encouraged Acworth to write lines that were overtly patriotic and which mirrored these ideals, Elgar had little alternative but to provide a musical apotheosis that would match or even outdo Acworth. Today, it is difficult for audiences to identify with the self-confidence of a country which had just celebrated the diamond jubilee of a Queen in whose name an empire bestrode a quarter of the world. Whether or not Acworth and Elgar really believed nations would ‘hymn the praise of Britain, Like brothers, hand in hand’ is not the point; most of their audience in 1898 would not have questioned the sentiment. Acworth and Elgar celebrate a British world where ‘No slave shall be for subject’ and whose members can enjoy ‘equal law to all men’: aspirations that turn out, ironically, to be at the heart of modern democracy and contemporary human rights. As Simon Heffer put it in The Age of Decadence (London: Random House Books, 2017, 493): ‘Millions saw empire as a noble ideal, the least of many potential evils, a benign form of international paternalism. … The ideal they admired also offered challenges to take the Union flag, and therefore what many Britons believed to be the highest form of civilisation, to the farthest reaches of the globe.’

With that first performance in Leeds, Elgar completed a series of secular choral works all of which are hampered by libretti that, to modern ears, fail to match the quality of his music. Two years later Elgar was to find the libretto he needed to build on the success of his Enigma Variations. Tearing to shreds Cardinal Newman’s long contemplative poem The Dream of Gerontius, he composed a work which, after a difficult birth, would establish a permanent position at the heart of British choral societies. Before that, and shortly after arriving home from Leeds, he sat at the piano and from his hands emerged the ‘Enigma’ theme. That, however, is another story.

Andrew Neill © 2019

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