This England program notes

Program Notes
by Jane Rausch and Robert Simon

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” ~Shakespeare, Richard III

We have arrived in England this afternoon on our season’s concert tour around the world. Musically in the early twentieth century it was an exciting place to be because of the emergence of a new generation of notable British composers. William Walton was one of the three indisputable leaders of this generation, together with Michael Tippett (three years younger) and Benjamin Britten (eleven years younger.) Their immediate musical forbears were Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. 1872) and Gustav Holst (b. 1874), and all were contemporary with Edward Elgar (b. 1857) who lived until 1934.

Sir William Walton was a respected composer without a long list of renowned teachers. He was not a child prodigy (although at the age of sixteen he was the youngest person since the time of Henry VIII to graduate from Christ Church College, Oxford University). Both the dean and the organist of Christ Church encouraged him, but Walton received little, if any, formal instruction. In spite of this inauspicious beginning, during his sixty-year career he wrote music in several classical genres and styles that range from film scores to operas. His best-known works include Façade, the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, the Viola Concerto, and the First Symphony.

Walton’s compositions shared many of the qualities of those of Edward Elgar, and since Elgar had died in 1934, British authorities turned to him to compose a march in the Elgarian tradition for the coronation of King Edward VIII that was scheduled for May 12, 1937. Before Walton could finish the work which he called Crown Imperial March, Edward abdicated to marry the American Wallace Simpson and was replaced by his brother George VI on December 11, 1936. Thus, the premiere of the march was at the coronation of King George VI on May 12, 1937.

The piece falls into an ABABC form: an opening section, brisk and rhythmically pointed, makes an effective contrast with the slow Elgarian trio section, which has a long, unforgettable cantabile melody in A flat, sung first by clarinet, English horn, and violas, with the rest of the strings providing a rich accompaniment. The radiant brass chords preceding the trio are the basis for a splendid coda which, as all the material is recapitulated more expansively, sweeps into a conclusion of breathtaking magnificence.

Crown Imperial was an immediate success with the public. It has remained one of the most popular of Walton’s orchestral compositions, so it comes as no surprise that Prince William and Catherine Middleton chose it as a recessional piece for their wedding on April 20, 2011.

Regarded by many as an “English nationalist composer,” Ralph Vaughan Williams is under-appreciated despite his nine masterful symphonies. His compositions, like those of Dvořák and Bartok, were influenced and colored by the nationality of their composer, but were not dominated by it. Vaughan Williams sought to free English music from foreign influence so that it would truly be the music of the English people. After a lengthy search for a personal style, he found his voice by tapping into England’s rich treasury of folksong and the magnificent heritage of its Tudor-era music. The warmth, spirituality, and humor of those sources have played a significant role in many of his compositions.

Vaughan Williams composed his Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings for oboist Leon Goosens. Its premiere was planned for July 5, 1944, but German air raids forced postponement so that the first performance took place two and a half months later with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. The Oboe Concerto is deceptive. Its gentle melancholy largely obscures the extreme virtuosity of ability and endurance required of the soloist, and unlike nineteenth century concertos, the oboe and orchestra never argue but genially support one another. The first movement, Rondo Pastorale, begins quite unassumingly with a rather innocuous melody in the Dorian mode. Almost before it has a chance to travel far, the concerto moves to the second movement, Minuet and Musette which is an off-kilter, irregular peasant dance shaded in modesty. It is the third movement, Finale, that carries the concerto’s weight. Only here does the oboist flirt with external virtuosity, but the orchestra soon steps in to foil the soloist’s agitation, and the music, remembering the opening movement, turns melancholy. The casualness of the beginning has disappeared, and the oboe is wistfully left alone at the end.

— Jane Rausch

Music scholars generally agree that during the 200 years following the death of Henry Purcell (1659-95), England had raised many very talented native-born composers, but none of the first rank. That wasn’t until Edward Elgar came along. A completely self-taught composer from a middle class family background that had produced some talented amateur players, he burst upon the larger musical scene in 1899 with a masterpiece, the Enigma Variations, after years of honing his skills and developing a local reputation in his native area around Worcester. It was no flash-in-the-pan, for after that breakthrough there came a stream of other masterworks followed by honorary degrees, a knighthood, financial security, and other trappings of fame.

The Enigma theme itself started out as a bit of brief piano “doodling” by Elgar one October evening in 1889 which his wife, sitting nearby, said she liked. He then whimsically improvised a few variants, each suggesting a different friend. It evolved into an orchestral work, scored in two weeks the following January and premiered to great popular and critical acclaim in June. The composition consists of Enigma, followed by fourteen variations intended as tonal impressions of some friends of the composer. They are identified in the score by initials, pseudonyms, or special marks. Two “enigmas” were associated with the work. The first was the identity of the subjects. This was cleared up among the composer’s intimates and became public knowledge, especially after his death. The second has been far more difficult. Elgar hinted that a “larger,” unplayed theme “goes” along with the entire composition. Only his wife and one very close friend also knew the identity of this “larger” theme, and the secret was never divulged. Many solutions have been proposed since the composer’s death, but none has been considered fully convincing. The fourteen musical portraits are all multi-dimensional and full of subtleties. Although it is the music that is paramount, a brief survey of the variations may be helpful.

I. “C.A.E.”: is a likeness of the composer’s wife, Alice. They were a very devoted couple and his love for her shines forth throughout.
II. “H.D.S-P”: H. D. Stuart-Powell was an amateur pianist who played chamber music with Elgar. He liked to play warm-up arpeggios before getting down to the music at hand. In this variation, however, Elgar provides a chromatic, far more complex spoof of his friend’s exercises.
III. “R.B.T.”: was Richard Baxter Townshend who enjoyed acting in amateur theatricals. His normally low voice sometime flew off into soprano squeaks, suggested here by the oboe.
IV. “W.M.B.”: was William M. Baker, a local squire and choral music enthusiast. He had a loud, bossy but lovable way of getting his guests off to performances on time. The “teasing attitude” of his guests is limned by some busy passages for the winds.
V. “R.P.A.”: Richard P. Arnold was a son of the prominent poet and essayist, Matthew Arnold. He had a high-pitched, nervous laugh, (HAhaha –hahaHAhaha) suggested here by the oboes and strings.
VI. “Ysobel”: pictures Isabel Fenton, who studied viola with Elgar and played chamber music with him. The variation features an exercise involving the bow crossing over strings, often difficult for beginners. A photograph from the period shows her to have been tall, slender, and rather attractive.
VII. “Troyte”: Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and trusted friend. He reportedly had a “vigorous, argumentative temper” which Elgar brilliantly captured in the music.
VIII. “W.N.”: A musical portrait of Winifred Norbury is found in this quiet interlude. She was described as a gracious lady who lived in a charming 18th century house, and personified to Elgar the spirit of a bygone age.
IX. “Nimrod”: Elgar engages in a little wordplay here. Nimrod was the biblical “hunter,” which in German is Jäger, editor of The Musical Times and advisor to Elgar’s principal publisher, who was his closest, most supportive friend. The composer’s musical tribute to him was a warmly noble variant of the theme, and is often used in ceremonials of a solemn nature.
X. “Dorabella”: was Elgar’s pet name for Dora Penny, a young, pretty family friend. It refers to the Dorabella of Mozart’s opera Cosí fan tutte. Miss Penny was delicate, loved to dance, and had a slight stammer, all affectionately pictured here.
XI. “G.R.S.”: George Robertson Sinclair was the organist of Hereford Cathedral. However, this variation actually relates to an amusing incident involving his big bulldog, Ned, who slipped down a steep embankment into the river Wye during a walk. Unhurt, he thereupon paddled downstream, scrambled ashore on finding a suitable landing place, and then gave forth with a triumphant bark.
XII. “B.G.N.”: Basil Nevinson was a cellist who frequently joined with Elgar and others to play chamber music. This exceptionally lyrical variation, sung primarily by the cellos, is a tribute to this friend who was reportedly a very competent player.
XIII: “***”: Elgar stated that the subject here was Lady Mary Lygon, who was then en route to Australia. The mood is profoundly elegiac. A solo clarinet plays a passage from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage while the rumble of the timpani with coins placed on the drumhead suggests the drone of the ship’s engines. There is evidence, however, that Elgar may really have had in mind a former fiancée who, in failing health, had taken ship for Australia around 1895.
XIV. “E.D.U.”: was Elgar’s wife’s pet name for him (“Edoo”), and this brilliant finale is a self-portrait. It unifies the various elements of the preceding variations with a special nod to the first, which pictures his beloved wife, and the seventh, devoted to Jäger. But this finale also declares in no uncertain terms what he hopes to accomplish. Here is the man who, as a little boy, once declared to his mother that some day all letters to him would come addressed to “Edward Elgar, England.”

— Robert Simon

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