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This latest album in Hallé’s award winning series of recordings of works by Elgar couples his last great choral work with a fascinating collection of works which similarly remember the departed.
Binyon was bitterly disappointed and could not see why both settings should not be published. Elgar’s friends passionately urged him to continue, but he now fell back on his customary plaint that the public did not want his music. Colvin was furious and wrote to him: ‘What has the poor British public done now which it had not done a month ago, when you were full of the project and raised all our hearts with the anticipation of a great & worthy expression & commemoration of the emotions of the hour, such as you alone are capable of giving them? Honestly, I think you take far too censorious and jaundiced a view of your countrymen …’
Next day, Elgar resumed work on ‘For the fallen’, the only movement he completed in 1915. Binyon wrote an extra stanza for him—the one beginning ‘They fought, they were terrible’—so that his text would differ from Rootham’s, but the latter remained bitter and angry, and felt that Elgar had broken his word.
Elgar completed ‘To women’ in February 1916, but he was to delay ‘The fourth of August’ for many more months because of his difficulty with the stanza beginning ‘She fights the fraud that feeds desire on / Lies …’, with its references to Germany as the ‘Vampire of Europe’ and its ‘barren creed of blood and iron’. Elgar had many German friends (one has only to think of ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations to assess what he felt he owed to A. J. Jaeger, his longtime editor at Novello’s), while his music had been generously recognised and performed in Germany at a time when his own countrymen were still sceptical. This stanza therefore gave him some trouble.
When he eventually felt able to tackle it, he did so by quoting the Demons’ Chorus from his own The Dream of Gerontius, explaining to his friend, the critic Ernest Newman, who was to write a programme-note: ‘Do not dwell upon the Demons part … The Hun is branded as less than a beast for very many generations, so I would not invent anything low & bestial enough to illustrate the one stanza. The Cardinal [Newman] invented (invented as far as I know) the particular hell in Gerontius where the great intellects gibber & snarl knowing they have fallen. This is exactly the case with the Germans now—the music was to hand & I have sparingly used it.’ He had earlier explained to Newman that the section in ‘For the fallen’ beginning ‘They went with songs to the battle’ was ‘a sort of idealised (perhaps) Quick March, the sort of thing which ran in my mind when the dear lads were swinging past so many, many times’. The orchestration of ‘The fourth of August’ was completed on 12 May 1917, and the whole work was dedicated ‘to the memory of our glorious men, with a special thought for the Worcesters’.
The first performance of ‘To women’ and ‘For the fallen’ was given in Leeds on 3 May 1916 with John Booth and Agnes Nicholls as tenor and soprano soloists. (The work is ‘for tenor or soprano’, and today it is usual to have one or the other, not both.) Elgar conducted and did so again five days later in London, where Clara Butt arranged six charity concerts between 8 and 13 May, in each of which the two Binyon settings were followed by Gerontius. On 10 May King George V and Queen Mary attended, Lady Elgar remarking in her diary that ‘the King seemed very fidgety & unKinglike … The King was said to be much affected by “For the fallen” but Gerontius was evidently too long for him’.
‘The fourth of August’ was not performed until 4 October 1917, when the complete Spirit of England was first given in Birmingham, with Appleby Matthews conducting his choir and the New Orchestra. The sole soloist was the New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman. The work was repeated in Leeds on 31 October with Agnes Nicholls as soloist. Elgar conducted and the performance was repeated in London in the Royal Albert Hall on 24 November, when the tenor Gervase Elwes joined Agnes Nicholls.
The music of The Spirit of England is direct and straightforward in its appeal. The movements are slightly connected by the recurrence of themes. ‘The Fourth of August’ opens with a sombre rising and falling sequence that is to run through it to the end. Compassion and dignity are the keynotes, with radiant ecstasy for the soloist.
In ‘To women’ Elgar’s harmonic idiom takes on an almost impressionistic quality quite new to it. The onomatopoeia of war—‘hawks of war, Those threatening wings that pulse the air’—are expressed with a musical truth not again approached until Britten’s War Requiem, but it is the deep sadness in the voices that makes this movement haunting and unforgettable. It ends with a quotation from the main theme of ‘The fourth of August’, whereas ‘For the fallen’ begins by quoting from ‘To women’—its first lines likening England to a mother mourning for her children. Other themes are recalled in the orchestral prelude to this movement, which is in the shape of a funeral march—strange to think that the cantabile theme was conceived as early as 1902 to describe George Sinclair’s bulldog Dan ‘wistful, outside the cathedral’. Of the three movements, this last one carries the heaviest burden of personal anguish and regret, yet the pathos and dignity are never threatened by self-indulgence. The section ‘They went with songs to the battle’ contrasts a wistful gaiety of rhythm (pp and dolce) with desolate diminished fifths and a lamenting oboe, insistent and heart-rending. For ‘They shall not grow old’ (as Elgar set Binyon’s most famous line) the music is restrained, sad beyond words and with a wonderful falling cadence at ‘At the going down of the sun’. At ‘To the innermost heart of their own land’, the dead march returns and the opening is recapitulated.
Throughout the whole work, the listener will sense near-quotations and sometimes direct quotations from The Dream of Gerontius (at ‘but not to fail!’ in ‘To women’, for example) as if the sorrows of war had reawakened in the disillusioned Elgar all that ‘sense of ruin that is worse than pain’ that lies at the core of his greatest religious masterpiece.
It is difficult to comprehend the relative neglect of The Spirit of England, especially as its mood of autumnal regret matches that of the Cello Concerto, with which it is spiritually linked by their common origin in Elgar’s attitude to war. Benjamin Britten wrote of ‘For the fallen’ that he found ‘in its opening bars a personal tenderness and grief, in the grotesque march an agony of distortion and in the final sequence a ring of genuine splendour’.
It could be, I suppose, that the discredited stigma of jingoism as applied to Elgar attaches to it in some minds. Those who berate Elgar for a tub-thumping kind of patriotism have never listened to the final scene of Caractacus in its context, have never listened to the Coronation Ode at all, and have certainly never listened to The Spirit of England. In this consummatory choral masterpiece are Elgar’s ‘stately sorrow’, his ‘heroic melancholy’, the moods he sounded most surely and effectively. It is the vocal equivalent of the Larghetto of his Second Symphony.
Michael Kennedy © 2014
A voice in the wilderness Op 77
‘I like to look on the composer’s vocation as the old troubadours or bards did. In those days it was no disgrace for a man to be turned on to step in front of an army and inspire the people with a song.’ Elgar’s words, told to The Strand magazine in the first flush of the Edwardian era, would come to haunt him a decade later. When war broke out in August 1914, it was generally assumed that he’d rise swiftly to the occasion. And, in person, he showed the expected enthusiasm, gamely signing up for the Hampstead Special Constabulary (the only war service practical for a man of 57).
In private, he despaired. ‘Concerning the war I say nothing,’ he wrote to his friend Frank Schuster shortly after enlisting. ‘The only thing that wrings my heart & soul is the thought of the horses … the men—and women—can go to hell … I walk round & round this room cursing God for allowing dumb beasts to be tortured …’ Beyond collaborating with the poet Arthur Benson on new, more sombre words for Land of Hope and Glory (promptly ignored by the general public), Elgar found it almost impossible to write large-scale music in the first months of the war.
He did, however, respond to a request to contribute something to King Albert’s Book—a charity anthology in support of the people of Belgium, where reports of Prussian atrocities had done much to stoke British support for the war in the autumn of 1914. The result was Carillon, a setting for speaker and orchestra of words by the Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts. It was such a success that Cammaerts and Elgar collaborated again on Une voix dans le désert: a setting of Cammaerts’s words (translated from the French by his wife Tita Brand), completed in July 1915 and premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on 29 January 1916 as an interlude between Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Elgar conducted, with the Belgian actor Carlo Liten as the speaker, and the soprano Olga Lynn.
Melodrama—spoken words with a musical accompaniment—has fallen from fashion, but in the late 19th century it had a wide audience (Richard Strauss’s melodrama Enoch Arden, almost completely forgotten today, was a popular recital item). Une voix dans le désert adds a further dimension—a solo soprano, representing the Belgian peasant girl of the poem. It was also fully staged. The critic of the Pall Mall Gazette left a description of the first performance:
It is night when the curtain rises, showing the battered dwelling, standing alone in the desolate land, with the twinkling of camp fires along the Yser in the distance, and in the foreground the cloaked figure of a man, who soliloquises on the spectacle to Elgar’s music. Then he ceases, and the voice of a peasant girl is heard coming from the cottage, singing a song of hope and trust in anticipation of the day the war shall be ended … The wayfarer stands transfixed as he listens to the girl’s brave song, and then, as he comments again on her splendid courage and unconquerable soul, the curtain slowly falls.
Elgar’s evocation of the Western Front by night is desolate and subdued—almost expressionist in its starkness and the immediacy with which it responds to and colours the narrator’s words. But, when the Belgian girl sings, the music—as the text demands—warms and soars, with a melody built on an aspiring phrase that wouldn’t sound out of place on the lips of the Angel from The Dream of Gerontius. (Elgar modelled the song’s climactic phrase—‘Our churches will be opened’—on an Ave Maria by the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacques Arcadelt.) There’s something more here than a public duty being fulfilled: Une voix dans le désert is a poignant, poetic and strikingly original glimpse of the true Elgar in wartime.
Richard Bratby © 2016
Grania and Diarmid Op 42
The origins of Elgar’s Grania and Diarmid music lie in the Irish literary renaissance of the late 19th/early 20th century, spearheaded by figures like W.B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and George Moore, the prolific Anglo-Irish novelist. Moore first met Yeats in 1897 when the latter described plans to establish a national theatre in Ireland. This led, in 1901, to them collaborating on a play based on one of the iconic stories in the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology Diarmuid and Gráinne, a tale of tragic entangled love.
Moore, when considering what incidental music was required for the play, recalled hearing Elgar’s choral cantata Caractacus at the Leeds Festival and felt that he would be the ideal composer to approach. In his initial correspondence with Elgar, Moore indicated that he wanted ‘music for the death of Diarmuid. A moment comes when words can go no further, and I should like music to take up the emotion and to carry it on.’ After Elgar agreed to write this Moore added further requests for some horn calls and a song for Laban, the druidess, at her spinning wheel, with words by Yeats.
Elgar’s music for the play was written for a small theatre pit orchestra; after the first rehearsal Moore was thrilled and wrote to him: ‘There is nothing in Wagner more beautiful.’ Feeling that Elgar had totally caught the atmosphere of the play, Moore started badgering him to write an opera on the subject, which the composer considered, although nothing came of it.
The collaboration between Yeats and Moore was less happy; there were frequently quarrels, but nevertheless the play was finally staged on 21 October 1901 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, performed by the Stratford company of the actor-manager Frank Benson. It played for a week, then sank without trace. When Elgar approached Yeats to ask if he would give permission for his words to be used for publication, the poet willingly assented and commented that the music was ‘wonderful in its heroic melancholy.’
‘Heroic melancholy’ is indeed an apt description for the Funeral March which Elgar described to Jaeger, his champion at his main publishers Novellos, as ‘big and weird’, as well as potentially ‘useful for commemorations’. Rescored for full orchestra (and with the title Anglicised and the lovers’ names in reverse order), Elgar dedicated the march to Henry Wood, who conducted the premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, on 18 January 1902. Elgar also combined the miscellaneous fragments of music used in the play into a short movement of Incidental Music, which together with the Funeral March and the song were published as his Op 42.
The play revolves around a love triangle. The beautiful Grania, daughter of the High King of Ireland is betrothed to the aged warlord Finn; however, when she and Finn’s right-hand comrade in arms, the young, handsome Diarmid meet, it is love at first sight and they elope. For many years and with countless adventures, they are pursued by the revengeful Finn, until eventually a truce is declared. Finn organises a boar hunt to celebrate, Diarmid agrees to take part despite knowing that it has been prophesised that had would be killed by a boar. The prophecy proves true, Diarmid is mortally wounded; he is brought on stage where he begins to sway his hand as if to music. He has heard the harp of Aognhus, whose music accompanies the dying to the afterlife. Finn has the powers to save him, but consumed with jealousy, cannot bring himself to do so, until finally he changes his mind. It is too late, Diarmid falls back dead.
Moore later wrote of Elgar’s music that he ‘must have seen the primeval forest, as he wrote, and the tribe moving among the fallen leaves, oakleaves, hazel leaves …‘; undoubtedly the music captures the spirit of the play in an uncanny and distinctive way. The Incidental Music opens with horn and trumpet calls, close by and afar; then eerie swaying string chords lead to a lamenting clarinet theme with harp. The Funeral March takes up the horn-calls before its main melancholic, but noble, theme holds sway, being made all the more poignant by the twisting chromatic figure underlying it. Diarmid’s death is announced by a stoke on tam-tam. As the funereal tramp continues its way, how perfectly it underpins the emotional dénouement of the play as in Grania’s words:
‘There are birch trees upon the mountain that summer has made ready for the flame … they shall be heaped to a great height. Dairmuid shall be laid upon them and when they are lighted all people that are on the western shore shall see the blaze.’
The song ‘There are seven that pull the thread’ is sung by another of the play’s significant characters, Laban, whose spinning foretells the fate of men; when Laban’s threads break, death looms.
Andrew Burn © 2016
In memoriam (An Irish Elegy)
Arnold Bax, although born in the London suburb of Streatham, conceived a passionate interest in, and love for, Ireland. The whole of Ireland at that date was governed by Britain. There was a powerful nationalist element in the country that demanded Home Rule. Bax was enslaved by Irish literature and poetry and lived there for a time. He returned to England in 1914, when the Great War began. He was deeply shocked by the Easter Rising of April 1916 and by the execution of some of its leaders, several of whom he knew. A book of poems that he published under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne was banned by the British censor in Ireland. A strange prelude to his future as Master of the King’s Music (from 1942 until his death in 1953).
In memoriam (originally and aptly called by the composer An Irish Elegy) was initially written as a sextet for string quartet, cor anglais and harp—instrumentation that shows Bax’s skill in evoking the special melancholic tone-quality of the cor anglais combined with the sound of the harp. This is the version in which the work received its first private performance, at the Plough Club in London, on 10 March 1918, followed by a public premiere the following February. For many years it was thought that Bax had not orchestrated it. The manuscript short-score is dated 9 August 1916, but the full orchestration was not completed until later that year, after he finished The Garden of Fand (an Irish heroine).
A short introduction, with the oboe prominent, merges into a broad melody that Bax used again later in his music for David Lean’s film Oliver Twist (1948) in a scene for Mr Brownlow. The oboe launches an extended development section containing march rhythms, bugle calls and side-drum rhythms, culminating in a remarkable passage for stopped horns and a solo violin. The coda finds a different melodic way of expressing a deep but non-sentimental grief.
Michael Kennedy © 2014