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The Spirit of England, Op 80

composer
1914-1917
author of text

 
The genesis of Elgar’s last great choral work was complex and lengthy. It started in January 1915 when Elgar’s friend Sir Sidney Colvin, former Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, wrote to him: ‘Why don’t you do a wonderful Requiem for the slain—something in the spirit of Binyon’s “For the fallen”?’ Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), who had succeeded Colvin at the BM, had published The Winnowing Fan, a book of a dozen ‘Poems of the Great War’, at the end of 1914. Elgar sketched settings of three, but he then learnt that C. B. Rootham, organist and director of music at St John’s College, Cambridge, was setting ‘For the fallen’ and that it had been accepted for publication by Novello, Elgar’s publishers. Elgar decided he could not proceed and wrote to Binyon on 24 March: ‘I saw Dr R ootham, who merely wished to thank me for my “generous attitude”, etc. & said very nice things about my offer to withdraw—but his utter disappointment, not expressed but shewn unconsciously, has upset me & I must decide against completing “For the fallen”—I have battled with the feeling for nearly a week but the sight of the other man comes sadly between me & my music … I will see if I can make the other settings acceptable without the great climax.’

Binyon was bitterly disappointed and could not see why both settings should not be published.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.

from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2014

Recordings

Elgar & Bax: For the fallen
Studio Master: CDHLL7544Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Lest we forget
Studio Master: SIGCD562Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: The fourth of August  Now in thy splendour go before us
Track 1 on CDHLL7544 [7'19] Download only
Movement 2: To women  Your hearts are lifted up
Track 2 on CDHLL7544 [6'20] Download only
Movement 3: For the fallen  With proud thanksgiving
Track 3 on CDHLL7544 [13'04] Download only
Movement 3b: We will remember them  They shall grow not old
Track 7 on SIGCD562 [2'10] Download only

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