‘Did you ever read Froissart? ... His chapters inspire me with more enthusiasm than even poetry itself. And the noble canon, with what true chivalrous feeling he confines his beautiful expressions of sorrow to the death of the gallant and high-bred knight, of whom it was a pity to see the fall, such was his loyalty to his king, pure faith to his religion, hardihood towards his enemy, and fidelity to his lady-love!’
In Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, a Royalist general in the English Civil War fires the enthusiasm of the novel’s young hero by pointing him to the writings of the 14th-century French chronicler Jean Froissart. The effect of those words on the 32-year-old Elgar was just as potent. Here also was a young man setting out on a heroic quest, and in need of all the encouragement he could get. Convinced that there was little hope of making a success as a composer in his home-town of Worcester, Elgar had set out to conquer London. But his high hopes were quickly dashed. London didn’t want to know him, soon it was proving hard even to scrape a living – and now his wife, Alice, was pregnant. One can imagine Elgar’s delight when he received a commission for a short orchestral work from the Worcester Festival Committee. Before long he was thinking of an overture on a knightly theme. A motto from Keats suggested itself – ‘When chivalry lifted up her lance on high’ – and Froissart was conceived.
This was to be Elgar’s first large-scale work for orchestra, and not surprisingly he felt the need for musical encouragement. He found it in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger – an opera in which a young hero seeks musical mastery and recognition of his talents in a medieval setting. Meistersinger begins with a magnificent overture: stirring, confident, colourful and rich in memorable themes. It is plainly the model for Froissart. Elgar, too, derives tune after glorious tune from a few basic motivic ideas. There are passages when one hears unmistakable echoes of Meistersinger (nationalistic Elgarians often forget how much Elgar owed to Wagner). But Elgar’s voice is loud and clear from the start – could any other English composer writing in the late 19th century have orchestrated with such delicacy and panache? Froissart may not be a fully mature work of art. Perhaps it is overlong; if possible, too melodically fertile. But Elgar recognised the worth of this ‘chivalrous’ overture when he described it, years later, as ‘shameless in its rude young health’.
Programme note © Stephen Johnson
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