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Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 55 (1907–8)

BBC Concert Orchestra

1 Andante. Nobilmente e semplice – Allegro
2 Allegro molto –
3 Adagio
4 Lento – Allegro

Elgar was in the habit of describing works he hadn’t yet written. He mentioned a symphony as early as 1898; it was to be a sort of ‘Eroica’ inspired by General Gordon, the popular, idealistic hero killed in the siege of Khartoum in 1885. By the end of 1899 Elgar had actually written a theme, and his wife Alice mentioned hearing ‘scraps’ in 1901. But some of these early ideas probably ended up in Elgar’s Second Symphony rather than his First, and without a commission fee to allay his persistent anxieties about money (‘I can only get commissions to write rot,’ he said), he didn’t get down to work until the summer of 1907; he finished the score by the end of September the following year.

For a long time Elgar had promised to dedicate a work to the conductor Hans Richter, who had made a poor job of the first performance of The Dream of Gerontius and wanted to make amends. Richter was conductor of the Hallé Orchestra at the time, and gave the symphony’s first performance at one of their concerts in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on 3 December 1908. In those days, it was usual to clap between movements, but after the slow third movement, the response was especially warm, and Elgar was called on to the platform to take several bows. The press were there in force, and unanimously celebrated a triumph. Under the heading ‘The Musical Event of the Year’, the Daily Mail wrote: ‘It is quite plain that here we have perhaps the finest masterpiece of its type that ever came from the pen of an English composer.’ (One wonders what Stanford and Parry thought of that.) The Birmingham Daily Post invoked Gerontius – ‘a Gerontius who instead of dying has continued to live and is all the better for the agony of spirit he has been through’ … summing up: ‘It is a work not merely of English but of European significance.’

Richter, the champion of not-long-dead Old Masters like Wagner and Brahms, took the same view. When he was about to rehearse Elgar’s symphony just three days after the Manchester premiere, he addressed the London Symphony Orchestra with these words: ‘Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer, and not only in this country.’ Elgar, incidentally, thought Richard Strauss the greatest composer of the day, but then Strauss never wrote a symphony without a programme, the sort which Elgar held was the ‘highest form of art’.

In contrast with Manchester, the first London performance, at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, was packed out, and Richter had to repeat it later in the month. The American premiere followed in January, and within a year there were nearly 100 performances worldwide. The great Arthur Nikisch, who conducted the symphony in Leipzig, told the press: ‘When Brahms produced his first symphony it was called “Beethoven’s Tenth”, because it followed on the lines of the nine great masterpieces of Beethoven. I will therefore call Elgar’s symphony “the Fifth of Brahms”.’

Comparisons with Old Masters may do more harm than good, but Nikisch had a precise reason for referring to Brahms; for while Elgar’s orchestral exuberance and flamboyant melodic style come close to Richard Strauss, the finale of the First Symphony is, albeit sporadically, a homage to Brahms, whose Third Symphony Elgar particularly admired. Brahms never asked for a cor anglais, nor for two very active harps, in any symphony he wrote, and the more one thinks of Brahmsian parallels in Elgar’s finale, the more personal it seems. ‘I am really alone in this music,’ he wrote.

In the first movement, the long opening theme (an unusually daring way to open a symphony!) is a ‘motto’ for the whole work, with the distinct feeling of a procession that passes by, is glimpsed now and then from afar, and eventually returns. The main action of the first movement starts, after 50 bars, with an abrupt change of tempo (Allegro), as well as mood (appassionato) and key (D minor). The theme is terse and promising, just the thing for future passages of ‘development’. But Elgar also allows for a strong rhapsodic element, as ideas roll forth one after the other, and the pulse swings between duple and triple, even before the sweet and slightly sad second subject, in which the first violins are garlanded decoratively by a flute. When the processional motto returns at the end of the movement, it does so faintly, played by the last pair of players only in each string section, so that it is just about heard, but hardly seen. (Instead of perceiving what is there, said Elgar, ‘you don’t see that something is not there’.)

From A flat major, the home key of the first movement, the second shifts to F sharp minor. It’s a scherzo, scurrying along at a brisk one-in-a-bar. It’s also a quick, rather self-important march, and there’s a more relaxed playful contrast that Elgar told an orchestra to play ‘like something we hear down by the river’. Touches of lyrical sweetness enter even this movement. At the end, the march theme is recalled, slower and softer, to prepare the way for the Adagio, which follows without any break in continuity, the violins’ held F sharp providing a hinge to turn into D major.

Their new theme is actually a slowed-down transformation of the scurrying pattern at the start of the scherzo/march. Richter hailed Elgar’s Adagio as the sort of slow movement that Beethoven would have written. He was paying a compliment, but Elgar’s luxuriant melancholy and iridescent harmony are worlds away from Beethoven.

The final movement begins stealthily, with recollections (played only by the back desks of cellos and violas) of an angular motif from the first movement, followed by spooky hints of a march theme to come later.
A clarinet stretches a short phrase (it’s almost a yawn!) that is going to be a driving force later, too, and there’s an intriguingly slantwise reference to the processional motto from the first movement. The main Allegro is launched in a spirit of Brahmsian belligerence and the chief, though by no means the only, theme, when it arrives, is a strutting little march. (When he recorded the symphony in 1930, Elgar significantly speeded up at this point.) It enters quietly but takes on tremendous swagger as it’s repeated.

The Brahmsian business eventually works off its energy, and a feeling of reconciliation supersedes. The march is smoothed out into something broad and serene, and then, in all its glory, the processional motto from the first movement returns, against which all the other players, united, hurl themselves, like breakers on the sea-shore, though at irregular intervals – an unforgettable effect.

Programme note © Adrian Jack

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