The Spirit Of England is Elgar’s lost masterpiece, a choral work of eloquence and power that yields little or nothing in quality to the much more celebrated Dream Of Gerontius.
It’s a setting for soprano, chorus and orchestra of three poems by Lawrence Binyon that are themselves as compelling as the music.
The third of them, For The Fallen, contains lines we have all known since childhood: ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old …’
Poignant words, all the more remarkable for having been written in 1914, when the huge suffering and sacrifice of the First World War lay ahead.
Binyon wasn’t a jingoist, nor was Elgar. This work was only premiered in 1917, because Elgar, whose inspiration was rooted in Austro-German music, and whose own music was well received in Germany, wouldn’t set some lines in the first poem, The Fourth Of August, that he thought too hard on the Germans.
Elgar’s powers by this time were in decline, but he roused himself to write music of such eloquence that even the Left-wing pacifist Benjamin Britten, also a great British composer, was so moved by them that he wanted to record the piece. Sadly he was by then too ill to do so.
His advocacy would have increased the chances of wider acceptance for a piece that undoubtedly influenced Britten’s own War Requiem.
So why is The Spirit Of England so neglected? I suspect because of the title, which sounds like a tub-thumping, patriotic piece, though it isn’t.
If Elgar had also called this music a ‘War Requiem’, it would surely have done better. What’s in a name? A lot.
A successful performance needs a dramatic soprano able to do justice to what, ironically, is a very Wagnerian solo part. And in Rachel Nicholls, an Isolde of renown, we get one.
Conductor Sir Mark Elder supplies real power and momentum in a live performance from November 2014, where he receives stalwart support from his choir and orchestra.
The album’s fill-ups are rewarding, notably Elgar’s A Voice In The Wilderness, another wartime piece, popular at the time, which has subsequently sunk without trace.
Plus some of his incidental music from George Moore’s play Diarmuid And Grania from 1902, including a strikingly memorable Funeral March.