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Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 (1910–11)

BBC Concert Orchestra

1 Allegro vivace e nobilmente
2 Larghetto
3 Rondo: Presto
4 Moderato e maestoso

Following the spectacular success of his First Symphony, performed almost 100 times within a year of its premiere in 1908, Elgar must have felt encouraged to write another. After all, he still had plenty of unused sketches (he took a musical sketchbook with him on his country walks, and jotted down ideas even in company). But the next major project was the Violin Concerto, one of his most overtly emotional works, which had its first performance in November 1910. He got down to work on the Second Symphony almost immediately afterwards and finished it, amazingly quickly, in early March 1911.

Oddly enough, the first performance, in which Elgar himself conducted the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, was far from the triumph the First Symphony had been and the audience’s response was somewhat muted. ‘What is the matter with them, Billy?’ Elgar asked the orchestra’s leader, W. H. Reed: ‘They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.’

But gradually, almost as if by way of compensation, writers about Elgar’s music have tipped the balance in the Second Symphony’s favour, describing it as more complex and more personal than the First.

Trading one work against another is pointless and both Elgar’s First and Second symphonies have an equal claim to our esteem. The Second, though written for the same size orchestra with the addition of a high E flat clarinet and tambourine, certainly does have more complicated textures, and sounds more opulent. It requires the orchestral strings, in particular, to be athletic. As a violinist himself, and also a conductor with considerable experience, Elgar knew what he was asking. In both symphonies, the two harps make a very important contribution, sometimes cushioning the ensemble, sometimes giving it a pearly, luminous quality. In the Second Symphony, the way in which themes migrate, transformed, from movement to movement is particularly subtle, and very natural. The work as a whole is also more mellow, less dramatic, than the First Symphony, whose sharp contrasts of key from movement to movement, or section to section, are avoided, although in the Second Elgar’s harmony is very mobile, chromatic and, for short periods, deliberately bewildering.

The new symphony was dedicated to the memory of Edward VII, who had died in May 1910; yet despite the fact that the second movement is sombre, and rises to a searing expression of grief, Elgar claimed it had ‘nothing to do with any funeral march’. But he did point out a passage in the same movement, which he had sketched back in 1903, after the funeral of his friend Alfred Rodewald, the dedicatee of the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. At the top of the score, Elgar quoted the first two lines of a poem by Shelley:

Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!

Which refers, almost certainly, both to the presence and absence of delight.

At the end he printed ‘Venice – Tintagel’ and said that the beginnings of the second and third movements respectively expressed the contrast between the interior of St Mark’s and the Piazza outside. However, Tintagel, the ruined castle on the Cornish coast that was to inspire Arnold Bax’s sumptuously picturesque tone-poem a few years later, hasn’t been identified with any particular part of Elgar’s score. These labels are surely no more than circumstantial, and don’t offer deep insights into the music.

Elgar himself summed up the first movement as ‘tremendous in energy’, which it certainly is, with wide melodic leaps and lolloping syncopations in 12/8 time, occasionally relieved by 4/4. Elgar thought it was a composer’s job to invent melodies, not take them ready-made (he didn’t use folk tunes, for instance), and they appear in profusion here, so that the effect is of rhapsodic flow rather than hard and fast contrasts. As a symphony intended, at least nominally, to be a tribute to a larger-than-life monarch, its opening could hardly have been more appropriate. But the first movement is far from all swelling pride, since, by way of development, it retires into a sort of nocturnal, dreamlike state, before struggling back (strepitoso) to reclaim its original confidence.

The slow second movement (in C minor) begins with an echo of that dreamlike episode – second violins briefly taking the top line, above the firsts. Then it settles down into the blackest of cortèges. If this isn’t a funeral march, what is? The passage Elgar sketched after Rodewald’s funeral comes some way into the movement – an intricately fluttering, shimmering, ascending sequence, not far distant, in its sound-world and even its spirit, from Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ at the end of Wagner’s opera; it occurs twice, the second time pitched a tone lower in order to lead to the climax.

The Rondo (in C major, much modified with chromatic notes) is a real scherzo, rhythmically playful, so to begin we’re not sure if we’re counting threes, twos or ones, before a sonorous second theme bounces in and settles the matter. But again, darkness intervenes in the form of a nightmarish recollection of a passage from the first movement (originally with a theme for the cellos straining in their higher register) over a throbbing E flat pedal. The spectre passes and the ending is noisily playful.

The final movement sets out in a purposeful way with a theme marked con dignità. Perhaps Elgar’s demons have been exorcised, for the second theme, bounding healthily in the strings, is positive, too, and soon waxes grandioso and nobilmente.

The development – beginning with desiccated contrapuntal exchanges – turns into a quasi-battle scene, with a trumpet call whose top target note, a high B, orchestral players make it a point of honour to sustain longer than Elgar dared ask. Once calm is established, we are on course for a return to the starting-point and an effulgent climax which subsides finally into a quietly glowing ending.

Programme note © Adrian Jack

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