GEORGE FREDERICK HANDEL (1685 –1759)
Let me start by putting down my marker about the name of this most illustrious composer. He was born in Halle in Brandenburg in 1685 as Georg Friedrich Haendel. At age 21 he went to Italy for four years and first developed his career as a composer of Italian opera. He was then appointed kappelmeister to Prince George, Elector of Hanover but almost immediately obtained leave of absence to come to England in 1712 and then played hooky and stayed on indefinitely. In 1727 he became by Act of Parliament a naturalized British citizen and adopted the mainly English form of his name by which he was known, George Frideric Handel although the middle name is usually written as Frederick. So that is what I choose to call him from here going forward – (that’s the first time I’ve used that expression but everyone says it all the time on the Today programme). This business of the correct name can be tiresome. A person’s name is what it is, where it is and how a person chooses to be addressed. In Germany Handel would rightly be referred to under his German name. For most people in England, he is George but it is peculiar how the period music CD notes continue to refer to him as Georg Frideric as if otherwise it would not reflect the purity of authentic period music. There is another dimension to this. Not only was Handel as English almost as Elgar but dammit all he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus to which half the audience stands up, a quarter stick firmly to a bums on seat policy and the other quarter who are confused by it all and who are probably Japanese and are not quite certain whether to crouch or squat.. All of this because our German king stood up in wonderment at the first performance. And it was Handel who wrote Zadok The Priest for the coronation of George II in 1727 which has been played at every coronation since. And it was Georgy Porgy who was buried in Westminster Abbey. So he is English. He’s ours. So there!
In his series, Orchestral Splendours, Matthew has Handel sharing a platform with J S Bach who was born the same year and whom we can legitimately refer to as Johann, except his name was Sebastian. These two can be seeded as No 1 in the men’s doubles which brings me to another problem. To write of either is fine when each is the subject of a whole series. It gets tough just to touch fleetingly upon Handel when he wrote 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti. Matthew will this time just be his putting his toe in the Water Music or rather the Music for the Royal Fireworks. One day he may decide to undertake a Handel term. So far he hasn’t, stating that it is not a problem he has with Handel so much as a problem Handel has with him. Until then this has to be a somewhat condensed biographical summary of George Frederick Handel.
He was the son of a barber-surgeon. That’s familiar. So was Monteverdi. Handel displayed a natural ability for music. His father had had in mind for him to become a lawyer, just like Rameau’s dad and Stravinky’s dad or my dad. Handel senior, who worked for the Margrave of Brandenburg forbade young Georg to play around with any musical instrument. I myself have never forgotten a picture in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia (1935) of Handel being discovered in his nightshirt at the top of the house, playing a clavichord. It was to this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. Handel became a pupil in Halle of the composer Friedrich W. Zachow, learning from him the principles of. keyboard and composition. Handel’s father died when Handel was 11, but his education had been provided for and in 1702 he enrolled as a law student at the University of Halle and also became organist at the City’s Cathedral in Halle. A year later he moved on to Hamburg where he became a violinist in the opera orchestra and also filled in as a harpsichordist. It was there in 1705 that he wrote and presided over his first opera, Almira. 41 to go.
Handel spent the years 1706–10 travelling in Italy, where he met many of the greatest Italian musicians of the day, including Corelli and both Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. He composed a number of works in Italy, including two operas, an oratorio and numerous cantatas written in Italian. Oratorio was a term which was not used until much later in his career but opera was banned in the Papal States and Handel switched to writing religious works for performance in Rome, and with great success. His fame spread throughout Italy, and his mastery of the Italian opera style now made him an international figure. In 1710 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover but, before taking up these duties on his return from Italy, Handel journeyed to London where his opera Rinaldo was performed and greeted so enthusiastically that Handel sensed success by staying in England. Thinking about it, England offered an opportunity that did not exist in Germany. Publicly promoted box office opera and musical performance appeared more attractive than being a kappelmeister. Not much any way that the Elector could do about it. In 1712 Handel was given leave to return to London for the productions of further operas. On top of this, in 1713 following the Peace of Utrecht, he found his way into the Royal good books of Queen Anne with his Ode for the Queen’s Birthday and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate. This resulted in a right royal annual allowance of £200. Handel’s dictum had been “Get a life” and here he was in London and had done so. What possible reason could there be to go back to Germany and what could the Elector do about it anyway! Ha ha.
Handel however had taken his eye off the ball rather like an Arsenal defender. Obviously he was no royal watcher and had no idea what would happen after Queen Anne waved good bye, or that under the Act of Settlement of 1701 her successor would be Princess Sophie, Electress of Hanover. Sophie was the daughter of Elizabeth, sister of Charles I and through whom the Protestant line was traced like a pure bloodstock auction in Newmarket. Queen Anne herself had produced no successors. The poor woman had had 17 pregnancies ending in miscarriages in as many years as well as a greater number of still births. Her one son who survived infancy, William, died in 1701. Anne did not give up on it until her husband, Prince George of Denmark, died in 1708, presumably from exhaustion. It was for Prince George that Jeremiah Clarke wrote his trumpet voluntary, The Prince of Denmark’s March. Sophie was therefore the heiress in expectancy to the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland except that she died two months before the death of Queen Anne in 1714. So you can imagine the shock and horror that Handel had on opening his newssheet to learn that the new king would be Princess Sophie’s son, George, the Elector of Hanover, his old boss, now elevated to being George I. Ha ha.
For the next few years Handel kept a low profile and in particular held back on new opera. In 1717 he had a cool reception from the King but no sign of retribution or being taken to Tyburn! In 1717 Handel composed his Water Music and it was performed more than three times on the Thames for the King and his guests. It is said the compositions spurred reconciliation between the King and Handel. The Water Music is one of the best known of Handel’s purely orchestral music alongside his Music for the Royal Fireworks thirty years later. Nowadays both are played delectably as original Handel but in my younger days the composer was always Handel-Harty, a full modern symphony version of the original as orchestrated by Sir Hamilton Harty and which in its day served as the only acceptable way to play Handel in those modern times. Actually it was tastefully arranged but now there is no reason to suppose that Handel needs Harty to come to the aid of the party. 1717 also saw Handel become the inhouse composer for the Duke of Chandos at his country seat at Cannons near Stanmore, right up at the end of the Jubilee Line to be. The Duke had built the house between 1713 and 1724 at a cost of £200,000 (equivalent to about £25,000,000 give or take today). Here Handel composed his twelve Chandos Anthems. These are said to be an important foundation for his later oratorios. They are best played at high volume in a car. It was for the Duke that Handel got back to opera with Acis and Galatea, a delightful work based on Greek myth with theatrical effects of thunder. During Handel’s lifetime it was actually his most performed work. In 1719 the Duke of Chandos became one of the main subscribers to Handel’s new opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, but his patronage declined after he lost money in the South Sea bubble, which went plop in 1720 in one of history’s greatest financial cataclysms. Fortunately Handel, who himself had invested in South Sea stock in 1716 when prices were low, sold out before the bubble burst. So Handel was not only a successful composer but could play the Footsie as well. Following the first Duke’s death in 1744, Cannons passed to his son, the second Duke, Henry. Due to the losses from the South Sea Bubble and the cost of building Cannons there was little capital in Henry’s inheritance. So in 1747 he held a twelve-day demolition sale at Cannons which saw both the contents and the very structure of the house itself sold piecemeal leaving little more than a ruin. The building which replaced it is now occupied by North London Collegiate School.
In 1723 Handel moved into a house at 25 Brook Street, which he rented for the rest of his life. This house, where he rehearsed, copied music and sold tickets, is now the Handel House Museum owned by a Trust and thankfully the Nationwide Building Society were moderate having regard to property prices in Central London. During twelve months between 1724 and 1725, Handel wrote three outstanding and successful operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda, the last named having received a semi staged production by Jonathan Miller at the Blackheath Halls. Handel obviously loved Brook Street but it was a little too early in time for him to be able to sample the company down the road at the Savile Club or dine at Claridges.
From May 1719 and for some ten years after, Handel was engaged with the Royal Academy of Music, not the present teaching academy, but a joint stock company run and controlled by aristocrats looking to introduce opera seria into England. Hitherto this country was rather barren as regards opera and most of them , Purcell included, were more musical theatre. The Lord Chamberlain was put in charge, indicating the interest of the King, and he commissioned Handel to look for new singers. With all the skills of a modern day football manager Handel travelled to Dresden and attended their newly built opera. Here he filched a number of members of the cast, mainly Italian, for his Royal Academy of Music. His main targets were the soprano Francesca Cuzzzoni and the castrato, Sensimo whose demands but not his voice were far too high. He followed on a year or two later. Handel was then voted to be the manager of the company. Its performances largely took place at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket built in 1705 by John Vanbrugh and was later renamed Her Majesty’s. A number of Handel’s operas were revived but the company also recruited for orchestral work the composer, Bononcini whose operas were also successful. There was certainly a personality clash between Handel and Bononcini as there would be later between Handel and Sensino after this wonder castrato arrived. But darling, isn’t that what you expect in the theatre?
In 1727 George 1 died and was succeeded by George II. Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony which included Zadok the Priest. In 1728 John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera ran at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theatre history up to that time. This was more musical theatre than opera but its success was its audacity, satire and that it was in English, a language the audience could understand. After nine years the Royal Academy of Music ceased to function and was wound up. Apart from the loss of popularity for Italian opera and changing fashion most of its wealthy patrons were not getting any return on their money and most of them were still suffering losses from the South Sea Bubble. Oddly enough Handel had re-invested in South Sea and sold up and made a quick return on his investment in order to finance a new company start up of his own.
Handel again travelled to engage new singers mainly from Italy and also composed seven more operas, few of which are known today. In particular he was looking to sign up Faustina to replace Cuzzoni. When the going gets tough, the tough get going and the next few years were tough going for GFH. He and John Rich had hired the Covent Garden theatre and set out each season with new and old compositions which sometimes ran only for up to seven performances. On top of this there was competition from other royal patronage.. The Opera for the Nobility was strongly backed by Frederick, Prince of Wales, whilst Handel had his support from the King. This reflected the rivalry going on in the Palace. This latter group engaged equally famous musicians such as Nicola Porpora and the famous castrato, Farinelli, who was all the rage. Castrati came mainly from Italy until the practice was banned there in 1780. Castration took place before puberty and therefore the adult voice never developed but it is not apparently a child’s voice or a female voice. It was a powerful high male voice and can only be imagined as there are no recordings by which one can know. Most finished up as common or garden cathedral singers and were not allowed to marry. Some like Sensivo and Farinelli became the superstars of their age. Eunuchs were different. They lost their wherewithal after puberty and retained their broken voices but they were a safe bet not only about the harem but also in Government in that they could not produce dynasties of their own.
With opera production failing Handel started a move in a new direction round about 1734.. He was in the course of writing an opera called “Mordecai” which he changed to “Esther”. It was during its preparation that it was thought better to switch from dramatic stage performance to one where the singers and the main protagonists stood on the stage in their own clothes and sung the music. One good reason was that the words were in English and the audience just loved it. It was to all intents and purposes a concert performance and there were many who preferred to listen to the music without watching the melodramatics on stage. Another good reason perhaps was that there still existed in England a puritanical tradition with some who did not believe in dressed up men playing women and women playing men prancing about on the stage with painted faces. This form of opera in plain clothes, called oratorio, was more sober and at the same time musically more exciting as it allowed the choral forces to let rip and the orchestra to be heard instead of sitting in the pit below, Thus was the English oratorio born. It was not necessarily limited to stories from the bible as is generally thought although the bible has so many blood and thunder stories it remained a source of inspiration for Handel. Following Esther, there was Deborah, the first of the women judges and the charming lady Jael who gave Sisera some milk in her tent and while he was asleep hammered a tent-pin through his temple. This was followed by Athalia based on a play by Racine. It’s all about Jeraboam and Rhiaboam and Jehosaphat and….well you can read all about it in Chronicles 4 and the second book of Kings. Suddenly the oratorio was here to stay. Just like the operas before them, they came one by one. There was happy, happy Solomon who dispensed justice to the two women fighting over which of them was the mother; there is Saul which has the wonderful Dead March and how much better it sounds on original instruments than played by the massed bands of the brigade of guards as at Winston Churchill’s funeral. Then there was Joshua with fantastic trombones playing as the walls of Jericho come crashing down. From Joshua we get “See the Conquering Hero Come” which was so good that Handel used it again in Judas Maccabaeus, quite my favourite oratorio There were non biblical oratorios as well, the best known being Semele with “Wher’er you Walk” which I learned at primary school. What these oratorios brought besides their colourful orchestration were the choruses always described as rousing which they are. Oddly enough it took me a long time to get round to buying Handel discs. I was left with a prejudice from school days and a school performance of “Messiah” when I was twelve. I loved it and hated it at the same time, a Jewish boy singing about the Messiah made me uncomfortable as did the sound of the school orchestra. Messiah is different from the others. They are all action packed with rivers of blood and earthquakes and the killing of the first born. Messiah when you think about it has no action and yet it turned out to be his most popular creation. It was first performed in Fishamble Street Dublin with probably no more than 60 or so participants, a far cry from what it ultimately grew into. Handel bequeathed the score to his favourite charity, “The Foundling Hospital”. This establishment was created by Royal Charter in 1739, by Captain Thomas Coram a successful shipwright who had returned to England after a lifetime working in the New World. London was awash with abandoned children, by upper class getting rid of them, lower class not being able to afford them, prostitutes who knew little about birth control. Coram had been appalled by sights in the streets of London. From the start the charity benefited from the patronage of the arts; Hogarth was a founder governor, donating paintings to the Hospital. Handel, also a founding governor, gave benefit concerts in the Hospital Chapel to which he donated the chapel organ.
The Messiah is standard fare for Christmas and it may therefore come as a shock to learn that it was first played at Easter. Handel did not actually write the Messiah as a piece of Christmas music. Only the first part of Charles Jennens’ text relates to the birth of Jesus. The rest is to do with death and resurrection. The first performance in Dublin took place in April at Easter and that remained the practice until someone thought what a good idea it would be to play it at Christmas as well. So here I add another idea of my own. Christmas and Chanukah (the Jewish Festival of the Lights) always come round about the same time. Judas Maccabaeus is the Chanukah story, albeit written by Handel to reflect the general stress when Bonny Prince Charlie’s forces had got as far south as Derby. I would suggest a festival, at Blackheath Halls perhaps, conducted by Matthew Taylor no less, with Messiah for Christmas and Judas Maccabeus for Chanukah.
The late 1730’s saw the dissolution of Handel’s opera company and his going into partnership for a third company at the Drury Lane Theatre. He suffered an apparent stroke from which he recovered after taking the waters in Aachen. In 1737 he wrote funeral music on the death of the Queen Caroline, wife of George II. She had been Princess Wilhelmina Charlotte Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, daughter of the Margrave of Brandenburg – you’ve heard of him. She came to England on the accession of George I and became Princess of Wales. The pub on Montpelier Row was named after her and her likeness on the pub sign opposite was to be observed until quite recently when it was replaced by that of Diana, Princess of Wales. Neither the present Polish manager nor the brewers show any concern.
Handel also wrote orchestral music to be played during the intervals of his oratorios. These took on a separate life as his six concerti grossi opus 6, superb works which stand alongside Bach or Corelli. Likewise his organ concertos were written for playing during the intervals, as in Alexander’s Feast. My first hearing of one such concerto was at the Royal Albert Hall on its great organ with full symphony orchestra under Sargent, alright for Saint Saëns but not for the Cuckoo and the Nightingale or The Harmonious Blacksmith. Handel’s are chamber concertos and the organ no larger than that of a small wardrobe. Handel took his with him to Dublin for the Messiah.
To celebrate the end of the War of the Spanish Succession Handel wrote the Music for the Royal Fireworks for a display at Vauxhall Gardens attended by 12,000 people. Handel’s last years were beset by deteriorating eyesight made worse by a cataract operation carried out by the same charlatan who treated J S Bach. Should have gone to Spec Savers.. He died, a bachelor, in Brooke Street in 1759, the year that Wolfe defeated the French at Quebec. . He left over seventy paintings in his collection. At his request he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The Handel story ends and begins with his death, resurrection and apotheosis. From the late 18th century there was a revival with performances growing in magnitude. The Messiah became the bedrock of England’s musical greatness and expanded with the 19th century. Gargantuan performances took place at the centenary performance for Handel’s death in 1859. Thousands ascended to the Crystal Palace as late as 1926 to see Henry Wood with three and a half thousand singers and an orchestra of five hundred players . It had grown into an over bloated leviathan which Wood and the audiences accepted as the gospel. Wood always claimed that this was what Handel would have wanted had he had the resources. From Victorian times choral societies sprouted north and south of the Watford Gap and Handel united the nation. The best example of this is perhaps the town of Huddersfield. Known only otherwise as the birthplace of Harold Wilson and for a modest rugby league team it would not have been heard of had there never been the Huddersfield Choral Society famed for its singing of the Messiah. Huddersfield without the Hallelujah is like Bakewell without the Pudding. As for George Frederick Handel, or whatever handle you wish to accord, maybe Matthew Taylor should turn on the road to Damascus but not to Huddersfield.
SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Matthew Taylor has chosen to kick off his ambitious series on the Concerto, covering the period from 1900 to 1950, with Rachmaninov. Like Elgar he was a man of the 19th century although, in his case, only just. Still most of us on first acquaintance with his music perceived a lush romanticism of a distinctly nineteenth century flavour owing more to Tchaikovsky than to his nearer contemporaries, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Funnily enough, although he did not write film music there seemed to be a Hollywoodian association rather than a Russian one, not forgetting either the thawing effect his second piano concerto would have on the stiff upper lips of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. His music was regarded as predominantly pianistic and, speaking for myself, it took to the 1980’s with a little help from André Previn to realise just what a wonderful orchestrator he was.
Rachmaninov’s music was in this country distinctly popular during and following the second world war. It was particularly listenable to for the new emerging young audiences who had no time for all this new fangled modern stuff. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, especially the 18th variation became a no 1 pot boiler. Here was music with a decent tune played not only in the concert halls but also by Sunday night at the Palladium TV artistes such as the pianist, Winifred Attwell, under the title of The Story of Three Loves . It is wrong however to think of Rachmaninov as a Russian emigré remoulded in America. Rachmaninov was an established Russian composer emerging in the early 1890’s whose main output was composed in his years in Russia. He left that country in 1917 and settled in America but in all the time he lived there he found little time to compose producing only six works in twenty six years, albeit very fine ones. His career had by financial necessity become one of a virtuoso pianist always on the road. How different to the life and expectation which lay before him when he was born in1873, the second son to Vasily Rachmaninov an army officer married to his general’s daughter, Lyubov Butakova
Vasily was an amateur musician as well as a military man. His father had learned the piano under John Field, the Irish composer who spent a large part of his life in Russia. The family had a long aristocratic history but no longer any money to go with it. Still Lyubov had brought into the marriage as a dowry five estates. Within a few years Vasily had spent, drunk, gambled, invested disastrously and lost four of the estates leaving just the family home, Oneg. He also had a reputation as an inveterate liar and a lady’s man. Apart from that there was little to complain about.
Sergei’s first encounter with the piano was as a result of being made to sit under it as a punishment. Lyubov was a proficient pianist who gave Sergei his first lessons. He displayed an early musical aptitude and when he was six one Anna Ornatskaya, was engaged from St Petersburg to give him lessons and would remain for three years. Unfortunately in those three years Vasily had not improved and Oneg, the family home had to be auctioned off and the family forced to move to a small flat in St Petersburg. Separate arrangements had to be made for each of the children and in the case of Sergei, just ten years old, Ornatskaya arranged for his admission to St Petersburg Conservatory. The family break up was inevitable with the feckless Vasily leaving and never to return. Lyubov’s mother stepped into the breach to take care of the religious side of the children’s development. Matters became worse when three of the children including Sergei contracted diphtheria. Sergei and his brother recovered but their sister, Sophia succumbed. Fate struck another blow. His elder sister, Yelena, also musical with a fine contralto voice obtained a place in the Bolshoi opera but at age 18 she contracted and died of severe anaemia. On the plus side for Sergei he was taken to the Russian Orthodox churches of Moscow where the chant and the bells would leave a legacy in his music. The problem now was that there was little discipline exercised over Sergei who for three years began missing classes but covering his reports by falsifying the marks such as changing a mark of 1 for that of a 4. Ultimately he was to fail his exams and the family informed that he could lose his place. Urgent steps had to be taken. Alexander Siloti, a cousin who had made a successful piano career and was finishing a course with Lizst recommended that Sergei be shifted from St Petersburg to the Moscow Conservatory and referred Sergei to his own former tutor, the pianist, Nicolai Zverev.
Zverev took on private pupils but offered the three best pupils the opportunity to board at his flat. He did not charge where the pupil’s family could not afford it. He was a control freak who would brook no dissent. Rachmaninov shared a room with two other thirteen year olds living en famille with the sixty year old Zverev and his sister. Besides daily attendance at the conservatoire there was also vigorous piano practice at the flat for at least three hours a day starting at 6 o’clock in the morning. Zverev encouraged and paid for the boys to broaden their minds by visiting exhibitions, theatre and opera. Amongst his lessons were the playing piano reductions of orchestral works for four six hands or even, on occasion, eight hands with a fourth person joining them. I am not certain I would have liked to have been a neighbour, particularly at 6 am. Zverev would invite well known celebrities whom the boys would meet, one of whom was Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninov had recently heard his Manfred symphony and had then transcribed for two hands. Tchaikovsky is said to have been impressed but there is no extant record of it by which it can now be judged. It was from the study of piano reductions that Rachmaninov could learn much of the orchestral repertoire and learned his harmony. His first year had been successful and he had benefitted from the discipline. His second year at conservatoire would be studying harmony under Arensky and his success was such that he was taken under the wing of the principal, Tanyev (a dry as dust composer if ever there was one) to study counterpoint. This discipline is very much apparent in the first movement of Rachmaninov’s first symphony.
It became clear that Rachmaninov was bursting to compose but he was discouraged in this by Zverev which led to the ultimate rift between them. Rachmaninov was writing his first compositions, mainly piano preludes where Chopin was the inspiration but the style already recognizably Rachmaninov. His various preludes were written at different times and ultimately packaged as a set such as his five opus 3’s containing the C sharp minor. This became his universal trademark work. Other early works included a number of songs. It was Tchaikovsky who recommended Rachmaninov to his own publishers and it was they who approached Rachmaninov. Tchaikovsky also advised him not to ask a figure but to leave it to them to name one. Their first commission was 500 roubles, not bad when when he was otherwise only earning 15 roubles a month from odd pupils.
The rift with Zverev worsened with Rachmaninov more or less expelled from the flat after four years. By now Rachmaninov was no longer the fun loving adolescent but a serious minded individual. He moved in with a fellow student where he had a room of his own giving him the space to compose. Siloti by this time was teaching at the conservatory and introduced Rachmaninov to the Skalons, an aunt and cousins, who lived in a country estate, Ivanovka. Here he was happy to visit particularly Vera, the youngest of three daughters. He was 15 and she 17 but her mother was not going to have any of that, and he was forbidden to write to her. Instead he corresponded with her eldest daughter, Natalia, who herself was no mean pianist. They corresponded about his early compositions including a number of love songs seemingly composed with a nod in Natalia’s direction.
In 1891, he entered his name a year early at short notice for the final examinations at the Moscow Conservatory. This included the submission of a one act opera. Aleko was composed in 16 days, a vibrant gypsy opera which was successfully produced at the Bolshoi. It not only made the reputation of Rachmaninov but also that of the young Chaliapin. Not only did he pass his examination but he was awarded the Great Gold Medal. He then with Siloti moved to Ivanovka where he began his first piano concerto, his actual opus 1. He also wrote an unnumbered symphony in one movement known as the Youth Symphony; a one-movement symphonic poem, Prince Rotsislav and the Rock, a very haunting orchestral piece somewhat like Sibelius who was also at the beginning of his career in Finland.
As the early works were beginning to roll out new commissions followed including one to adapt Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty for two pianos followed in turn by his first Piano trio, Elégiaque. His publishers had now bought outright his five opus 3 preludes for 200 roubles equating to 40 roubles per prelude. One of them was of course the prelude in C sharp minor which would become a pianistic blockbuster. So though it became played all round the world; including on countless occasions by Rachmaninov himself; he was never to receive a kopek for it in royalties.
Rachmaninov was to receive a hammer blow towards the end of 1893 with the news of Tchaikovsky’s death caused by his drinking a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. The effect on Rachmaninov was immense and he poured his grief into his second piano trio mindful perhaps that it was a piano trio that Tchaikovsky wrote following the death of Nicholas Rubinstein.
Soon afterwards there followed the funeral of Zverev. The old boy had gone over the top in the first place; and had continued by putting a stop to another of his pupils performing in a first performance of the Rachmaninov first trio. Nevertheless a healing process did duly come about with Zverev sending pupils to Rachmaninov who was deeply sorrowful at the master’s passing.
Rachmaninov’s career from there on continued both as a composer and as a pianist performing both in Russia and other European centres. In 1896 he started on his first symphony working swiftly but intermittently between his playing commitments. Eventually the symphony was ready for performance and Alexander Glazunov had agreed to conduct. The symphony was cast in four movements and is very much a combination of classical structure owing something to Tchaikovsky and at the same time containing the sounds of Russian nationalism of the Mussorgsky/Borodin order. Its opening could be from the Night on the Bare Mountain but Mussorgsky himself could never have turned this theme into a fugue as Rachmaninov did in the development section. The opening of the last movement became widely known in the 1960’s as the signature tune of the television programme “What The Papers Say”. The work is powerful and over 65 minutes long. It may have needed a trim here or there but disaster was to occur. Glazunov, known for completing the unfinished works of others, famously Borodin’s Prince Igor, decided to make cuts to the score and changes to some of the instrumentation. It was also said that he was drunk during its ill prepared first performance. Rachmaninov had to escape from the concert hall. There can be nothing worse imaginable for a composer in seeing himself and all the hard work of months of inspirational ideas thrown to the lions by the ill thought caustic comments of critics. In the case of the Rachmaninov the critic in question – there were others – was César Cui, the least known composer of The Five, the Mighty Handful, and whose works are hardly known today. I cannot say if posterity has been unfair to Cui as a composer any more than I can comment on his ability as an engineer in the Russian army but one can say that critics owe a duty of responsibility to the subjects about whom they write, a responsibility that Cui lacked in likening the symphony to the ten plagues of Egypt and declaring it would be admired by the inmates of a music conservatory in hell, a brutal panning if ever there were one. The immediate result was that Rachmaninov withdrew the symphony ordering all copies to be burned; secondly it sent him into a composing block over two years. César Cui has something to answer for. Fortunately Rachmaninov was offered an assistant conductorship at the Bolshoi and so instead began his career at the podium. The symphony was never played again in his lifetime but it was unearthed in its Glazunov incarnation and later in the 1970’s Rachmaninov’s original sketches came to light. So how good a symphony is it? It ought to enjoy the performances given to its successors but here is what Robert Simpson wrote-:
“It is a powerful work in its own right, …., convinced, individual, finely constructed, and achieving a genuinely tragic and heroic expression – an artistic whole – created naturally and without strain it leaves little to be desired. At no time is it ever less than personal, strongly compelling. All four movements are genuinely thematically integrated”
During the period of composition Rachmaninov had been involved emotionally in a relationship which fell apart. His relationship with his cousin Natalia had however become closer and ultimately they became engaged. It took them three years to be able to marry because marriage between cousins, was opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church and his family. Eventually they were married by a military chaplain and their marriage was a happy one with two daughters following. Interestingly, there are two other instances which come to mind of marriages between cousins. Stravinsky had to overcome the same problem in marrying his first wife, Katya. The other composer to marry his first cousin was Grieg but he was Norwegian and for him the Russian Orthodox Church not an issue.
Following the catastrophe surrounding his first symphony Rachmaninov had a nervous breakdown descending into clinical depression and a creative block. In January 1900 Dr Nicolai Dahl treated him over three months, using novel methods of hypnotherapy to encourage the recovery . This encouraged the restoration of the creative muse and led to the writing and completion of the piano concerto no 2, the most famous of his concertos and which Rachmaninov dedicated to Dr Dahl. In later years Dr Dahl moved to Beirut. He played the viola in the orchestra of the orchestra of the American University there. On one occasion when Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto was performed the audience were informed that the dedicatee of the concerto, Dr Dahl, was a member of the viola section of the orchestra, and they demanded he rise and take a bow!
In 1904 Rachmaninoff became appointed chief conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre, a position from which he resigned following political upheaval of the failed 1905 uprising. He spent the following three winters composing in Dresden, and returning to the family estate, Ivanovka, each summer. In 1907 he tackled his second symphony and at the same time was writing his tone poem, The Isle of the Dead. In its early days the symphony was considerably cut by conductors so that it only lasted for 35 minutes. Nowadays it is very popular and performances last an hour. The Isle of the Dead is a haunting tone poem based on four paintings by the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin and in one article described as four good bad paintings. That may be but the Rachmaninov is for sure one certain good masterpiece.
In 1909, he composed a third piano concerto for his visit to the USA. This concerto is undoubtedly the most powerful of the four he wrote and contains a scherzo section in the middle of the slow movement, a device he used again later on in his third symphony. The tour was a great success and he was offered the permanent conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rachmaninov declined it.
A close friend of Rachmaninov was the composer Alexander Scriabin who had been a friend of his since their days together as students at the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin’s death in 1915 affected Rachmaninoff so deeply that he went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin’s music. When asked to play some of his own music, he would reply: “Only Scriabin tonight”.
The October Revolution of 1917 brought to an end the Russia as Rachmaninov had known it. As he saw it, the Revolution had led to the loss of his estate and threatened the loss of his livelihood. On 22 December 1917, he left Petrograd with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, having gathered some sketches and two scores of his own compositions and two orchestral scores and Rimsky’s opera, The Golden Cockerel. His only route out with the First World War in the west was to Helsinki. He spent a year performing in Scandinavia. He received three offers of lucrative American contracts which he declined before deciding that the solution to his financial concerns might lie in America. He left for New York on 1 November 1918. How different it might have turned out had the armistice come first? On arrival he was snatched up by an agent, given a piano by Steinway, and signed up with a contract by the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was now on a roller coaster of a concert career travelling non-stop by rail from one place to another. .
He was a sad man with a lugubrious face and now added to his torment was a deep seated homesickness for the Russia he had known and lost. He was described by his friend Stravinsky as a “six-foot scowl.” Between 1918 and his death in 1943, he completed only six compositions and his ability to create those lay in the fact that in 1932 he had bought and built Senar, a new summer home over Lake Lucerne. It is in classic Bauhaus design and it was there that he began writing again. He attributed his blockage to his heavy workload of concerts but in reality it was America itself that was the cause. It was as if he had left his inspiration behind when he left Russia. His revival only came about once he was living at Senar where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. It reminded him of his old family estate, Ivanovka. Here it was as in his later home in Beverley Hills that the visitors were Russian, the staff Russian and Russian traditions practised. It was here that Rachmaninov composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934. His comment on finishing it was “This is one for my Agent”. He went on to compose here his third symphony in 1936 which is pure Mother Russia. The Symphonic Dances, his last completed work in 1940, could be described as his Fourth Symphony. They are more symphonic than dance. The idea was suggested by Michel Fokine allowing these two old stalwarts from the Tchaikovsky days to combine in the twilight of their careers. It reminds me of “The Sunshine Boys” or “The Odd Couple”. A dead pan Walter Matthau to play the lugubrious looking Rachmaninov with Jack Lemon playing Fokine. The collaboration didn’t happen. Fokine died in 1942 and Rachmaninov followed him wherever a year later. In many ways it is a summation of Rachmaninov’s achievement as a composer, quoting from his long forgotten first symphony; from the ‘dies irae’ which he returned to time and again; and also Rimsky’s Golden Cockerel, the score of which he brought out with him from Russia. In this work his orchestration has become more modern with the use of a solo saxophone reminiscent of Ravel and the instrumentation more brittle and spiky. There was now a distinct nod towards those two other war horses of the Diaghileff years, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Just a nod mind you, not a conversion. It is as if after nearly thirty years the kopek might have dropped.
In late 1940 he was approached to write a short concerto-like piece for use in the British film, Dangerous Moonlight, but he declined. Instead it was offered to Richard Adinsell who came up with the Warsaw Concerto. I have often thought how Rachmaninovian that work sounds. I little knew how close that connection was.
Rachmaninov died in America in 1943. He was buried in Beverley Hills. He would have liked to have been buried at Senar but the war prevented that. He never returned to Russia. I started at the outset by saying his music was once viewed as luscious late 19th century romanticism. Much like Elgar in many ways, he did not appear to follow the trends of the twentieth century but simply continued writing his way, nostalgic, romantic, melodic, deeply Russian and attached to an old world; a brilliant orchestrator and pianistic composer whose own music remained always formally structured. A brilliant concert pianist without doubt but I would forgo any recordings or piano rolls he left if only, if only, he had not gone to the States and between 1918 and 1943, there had been available to him a more accommodating environment for him to compose, as Senar turned out to be, which would have then undoubtedly have allowed him to bequeath an even greater legacy to the world.
* Since 2013, the Russian government has been negotiating to purchase Senar together with its many Rachmaninov relics. Rachmaninoff’s grandson who died in 2012 had taken steps to prevent the opening up of the house. I have not heard that the negotiations have yet been concluded. The Russian Ministry of Culture aim to turn it into a Rachmaninov museum and to restore Rachmaninov’s reputation as a composer as opposed to a performer. Could it also, I wonder, should the circumstances arise, turn out to be a Plan B bolthole for Vladimir Putin himself?
EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)
Before I got round to writing biographical notes on the subject composers of the Matthew Taylor series I had a shot at writing a dissertation at a history series I was attending at Morley college in 2007. Our lecturer had sought a written presentation on the Indian Mutiny and I had a go. Unfortunately my lecturer never got round to reading it and Simon Schama and David Starkey have no need to panic from the challenge. My magnum opus started off with a prelude linking the mutiny at Meerut in May 1857 with the birth of a son a month later to the wife of a Worcester piano tuner at nearby Broadheath. The young boy was Edward Elgar destined to become the most famous of composers associated with empire and reaching its and his apogee in Caractacus, written following Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. This work ends with the Romans capturing the British king Caractacus. After a paean to Roman power the centuries roll on, the Roman empire replaced by a new greater British Empire over which the sun would never set.
Caractacus was the birth of the association between Elgar and the world of swaggering jingoism and imperialism. Associations such as this can prejudicially affect our take on the music of a composer. Our objective view of the music becomes coloured by the composer’s political leanings. Caractacus in particular is a little known cantata, a pity as it is the nearest thing to an opera that Elgar wrote, with distinct nods in the direction of Wagner,. It appeared when Elgar was on the cusp of greatness, two years or so to go before the Enigma Variations and the Dream of Gerontius would hail the arrival of the twentieth century. The climax to Caractacus comes with the Processional March which is so absolutely OTT that one scarcely takes note that it contains wondrous mood settings of the banks of the Severn and of the Malvern Hills. This flag waving triumphalism is echoed of course in the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Its majesty (maestoso) pervades both of his first two symphonies, brimming with the confidence of the Edwardian decade and ultimately fading away at the end of his second symphony like the lamps all over Europe which were about to go out.
Until he died in 1934 Elgar was perceived as an establishment figure, the man who wrote Land of Hope and Glory which he detested. (The words were actually written by A C Benson, a teacher at Eton and later Master of Magdalene.) It is against this background that the generation which followed, of which I was one, saw Elgar as a grandee whose music exuded a bygone aristocratic age which had spawned the pith helmetted rulers of the British Raj. (I assure you all I do not have a lisp). What is more it appeared in the immediate post second world war years to be conducted only by the knighted establishment of English conductors, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Barbirolli and particularly Sir Malcolm Sargent. Elgar was their personal property and what’s more they and the critics also resented the bloody foreigners attempting to trespass. (Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart was an exception who championed Delius, rather than Elgar, but he would often give a rattling good performance of the Cockaigne Overture). Little wonder it took another generation to see Elgar for what he was, a great composer who regardless of his establishment connections was reflecting a slice of history. He was not however a naturally born Edwardian grandee but a product of the Victorian age. It is a fact overlooked that he was already 43 and had lived over half his life when the old queen died. Here the proof of the pudding is in the moustache. It is a Victorian moustache and the Edwardians who wore them were the surviving older generation. The moustache is surely among the more pointless of fashion statements, wrote Michael Lepman in the Daily Telegraph. The growth of hair on the upper lips of both soldiers and colonial administrators played a decisive role in bringing the natives to heel. The fate of the Empire and the moustache have gone hand in hand. As the red patches on the world map have dwindled to insignificant dots, such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, so the once-universal furry caterpillar on the lip has become an endangered species.
Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO was knighted in 1904. In 1911 he was appointed a member of the Order of Merit; in 1920 it was the Cross of Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown; in 1924 he was made Master of the King’s Musick; the following year came the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society; in 1928 he got his KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order). Between 1900 and 1931, he received countless honorary degrees from the Universities in Britain and from all over the world and was made member of the top European and American academies. In 1931 he became a baronet, the first baronet of Broadheath of Worcestershire.
Yet behind all the pomp lay the circumstances of a very humble provenance. Despite all the splendour, he felt himself an outsider, not only socially but musically. In musical circles dominated by academics, Parry and Stanford, he was a self-taught composer (as was Walton after him); he was a Roman Catholic within a Protestant establishment and regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and he remained sensitive about his humble origins even after having achieved recognition.
His father, William, came from Dover and moved to Worcester in 1841 where he worked as a piano tuner and set up a shop in the High Street selling sheet music and musical instruments. His mother, Ann, was the daughter of a farm worker. The couple married in 1848 and Edward was the fourth of seven. Ann Elgar had converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before Edward’s birth, and he was baptised and brought up as a Roman Catholic, despite his father’s disapproval. William was a violinist of professional standard and held the post of organist at the Worcester Catholic Church for forty years. By the age of eight, Elgar was taking piano and violin lessons. He began composing at about 10. It was for a play written and acted by the Elgar children and would have little significance except that forty years later he rearranged and orchestrated it as the Wand of Youth suites.
Elgar received a general education at a local school near Worcester. His musical training was just piano and violin lessons from local teachers and more advanced violin studies in brief visits to London in 1877–78. Elgar described his first music as having been learnt in the cathedral, from books he borrowed from the music library, when he was eight, nine or ten. He was self-taught from manuals on organ playing and every book he could lay his hands on on the theory of music. He would have liked to have gone to Leipzig for further musical studies, but his father could not afford it. Instead, on leaving school 15, he started as a clerk with a local solicitor. So we do have one thing in common, Elgar and I. Not unsurprisingly he did not find the work fulfilling. After a few months, he left the solicitor and started giving piano and violin lessons and working occasionally in his father’s shop. He was an active member of the Worcester Glee Club, along with his father. It was around this time, he made his first public appearances as a violinist and organist. Elgar himself, having heard leading virtuosi at London concerts, felt his own violin playing lacked a full enough tone, and he abandoned any ambitions of being a soloist.
Elgar gained his first position as a conductor in 1879 when he was 22. But this was not to be some top notch symphony orchestra or chorus. The only orchestra of today around at the time was the Halle and Sir Charles Halle was to hold his position there till 1895. On the whole orchestras of the day were amalgams of freelance get together individual players and not contract musicians. Elgar’s little band of happy musicians was that of the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, all of three miles away from Worcester. Its line up consisted of: piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium, three or four first and about the same number of second violins, occasional viola, cello, double bass and piano. Elgar coached the players and wrote and arranged their music. From this concoction he acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of these varied instruments. He held this post for five years, from 1879. At the same time he became the professor of violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentleman, no less. He made his way in and around Worcester and played in the violin section of the orchestra at the Worcester Festival and at Birmingham where he was to play Dvorak’s 6th symphony and Stabat Mater under the composer’s baton, an event which left a lifelong impression upon him.
Elgar made his first trip abroad in 1880 with a visit to pre-Eiffel Tower Paris and saw Saint-Saëns play the organ of La Madeleine. He made his first German trip in 1882 and got immersed in Brahms, Schumann, Wagner and Rubinstein. At Leipzig he met an English student, Helen Weaver, and they got engaged. It got broken off however and Elgar came out somewhat hurt. The reason is not known but clearly she had thought better of it. Maybe she did not like the prospect of her intended being the conductor of the Lunatic Asylum Ensemble.
In 1883 he wrote his first full orchestral work. He was then a regular of the orchestra doing the winter concert season at Birmingham. The work was called Sérénade Mauresque. He was invited to conduct it but preferred to keep his place in the orchestra and afterwards rose to bow, violin in his hand, and then resumed his place. He began visiting London to try and get published but he was stony broke and despondent. At least there were teaching and playing jobs back in Worcester. He also deputised for his father as organist at the Catholic church and took over from him in 1885. From that he wrote liturgical works based on Catholic tradition and which are still in the repertoire of church choirs.
In 1886, aged 29, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts. Socially she was more than a cut above him. Her father had been a major-general. She probably took to Elgar putting his arm around her shoulder to help her violin technique. Anyway things happened and they became engaged. She was eight years older than him. As an engagement present, Elgar dedicated his short violin and piano piece, Salut d’Amour, to her. Her family were very hostile to the intended marriage. He after all worked in a shop and he was a Catholic to boot. Alice went ahead despite being told she would not inherit or get any support. Three years after meeting they were married at Brompton Oratory. All of this was of course pre-Downton Abbey. She became the driving force in the marriage, acting as his manager, his social secretary and was his keenest critic. She fought hard to introduce him to influential society and, with her pushing, they moved to London where she could do the networking whilst he did the composing. Their daughter, Carice, a contraction of Caroline Alice, was born in West Kensington in 1890.
In London, Edward and Alice spent time together at various concerts, particularly those conducted by August Manns at the Crystal Palace. He learned many orchestral tricks of the trade from Berlioz and Wagner and influences from each of these two can be clearly detected in the second movement of Elgars second symphony. This movement was in memoriam to Edward VII. Its long elegiac theme sounds like one of the impassioned build ups from Tristan and Isolde. The autumnal ending of the movement has a low trombone note following a high flute creating a sound that could only have come to his ear from the Hostias of the Berlioz Grande Messe Des Morts. He himself was not making headway at the time and when he did receive a commission it actually came from Worcester to write a short orchestral work for the Three Choirs Festival. The Overture, Froissart, was to be his first step on the professional ladder where Elgar has discovered his voice. It is a concert overture after Walter Scott concerning knightly deeds. The first performance in 1890 took place in Worcester with Elgar conducting.
One swallow however etc and lacking other work, there was nothing for it but to leave London in 1891 for a second time and return with his wife and child to Worcestershire, where he could earn a living conducting local musical ensembles and teaching. They settled in Great Malvern where Alice had previously lived. During the 1890s, Elgar began to build a reputation as a composer. His delightful Serenade for Strings dates from 1892 and frequently gets an airing but the bulk was chiefly works for the great choral festivals. The Black Knight (1892) and King Olaf (1896) were both inspired by Longfellow. The Light of Life (1896) and Caractacus (1898) were all modestly successful but not such as to make money. He had however made it sufficiently to obtain Novello & Co as publishers and particularly from them August Jaeger who became his closest friend. Following a holiday in 1897 in Germany he wrote Three Bavarian Dances. He was prone to despair but encouraged by Jaeger with “Your time of universal recognition will come.” He was to be right. So right that not only Elgar but Jaeger himself would become universally famous without his name being known.
Writing a theme with variations was nothing new. Often the listener does not always make the connection between theme and variation and sees it as just some academic exercise. In 1899, Elgar had sketched a theme and then had the idea, well let him tell the story in his own words, “I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme. The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends … that is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the party and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose”. He dedicated the work “To my friends pictured within”. The theme is very recognizable but Elgar added a cryptic clue that behind the whole thing was a larger theme. What was it? No one has yet discovered it or was it just Elgar playing clever to arouse interest. The enigma had been set and all the world loves a party game. This was no dry crusty theme and variations but variations which are very human and humorous. The friends are exposed with all their quirks and they bring a smile to one’s lips. Many are described by nicknames, some by initials, one by *** thought to be a romantic attachment of Elgar from before his marriage. The three principal portraits are CAE, the initials of Alice; Nimrod, the nickname for Jaeger. Nimrod is the hunter and Jaeger is the German word for hunter. His variation has turned into an annual funeral March every remembrance Sunday but funeral march it is not. Its link to the main theme is fairly obvious but it also has an upward familiarity to Beethoven’s Pathethique sonata, a pointer to Jaeger’s love of that composer. The third such person is the last variation, EDU. Not initials but the endearment by which Alice called Elgar. EDU is thus Elgar himself emerging out of the music, out of the century with confidence and an individuality which was to bring him fame at last at 42. Oh I forgot one other, not named. Variation X1 GRS was George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral, but also included is his bulldog, Dan, who slips into the river Wye and who is heard paddling away down river.
To finish off 1899 Elgar wrote Sea Pictures for mezzo and orchestra for performance at the Norwich Triennial Festival. These are wonderful songs the most famous being a setting of Where Corals Lie by Robert Garnett but Elgar, loyal to Alice included a poem by her, “In Haven (Capri)”.
The next ten years or so were the crowning experience, a period which coincided with the reign of Edward VII and going just beyond, the Edwardian years, the pre-war years. This was the period of Elgar at the top of his powers and here we need to look briefly at a few of the great works to emerge.
His next major work had already been commissioned for the Birmingham Triennial Festival. He had known the poem by John Henry Newman of the Dream of Gerontius for many years. His mother had given him a copy on his wedding. The poem relates the journey of a pious man’s soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. Newman had been a protestant priest and leader of the Oxford movement which sought to return the Church of England to Catholic forms of worship. He went further by converting to Catholicism and was made a cardinal. He has recently been canonized which will hopefully do him a lot of good. Elgar set a number of verses to music in a large scale work for soloists chorus and orchestra – he did not like the name, oratorio. It went through hurried rehearsals; the chief chorus master died shortly before the first performance; the conductor, Hans Richter, received a copy of the full score only on the eve of the first orchestral rehearsal. Little wonder the first performance was a disaster and Elgar shattered at the debacle. Fortunately its fortunes changed following its London performance at Westminster Cathedral. It was then played in Dusseldorf. The Cologne Gazette claimed that Elgar stood on the shoulders of Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt. Richard Strauss toasted the success of Meister Elgar. There followed performances in Vienna, New York and Paris. Two years before, Elgar, little known outside Worcester and Birmingham, was scraping for commissions. Now he was an international star. Of course Gerontius did the rounds all round England but not without difficulty in some quarters. Some bishops banned its performance in cathedrals finding the catholic concepts doctrinally alien. Musically it got short shrift from Stanford who had a vinegary disposition and criticised it as stinking of incense. As a God fearing atheist myself I am amused that here we have an inverse situation, an Irish protestant from Dublin castigating an English catholic!
In 1901, Edward Elgar called to his wife from the piano in the next room “Alice, I have a tune here which will knock ‘em flat”. The tune in question was to become his Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 and first played at a Prom that year conducted by Henry Wood. Benson’s “Land of Hope and Glory” was fitted to it to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. With one exception when Wood created a national protest by leaving it out, it has always been played at the last night of the Proms He went on to write four more pomp and circumstance marches but on the whole only No. 4 is generally known. Elgar viewed the march like Dvorak did the Slavonic Dance or Johann Strauss the waltz. In fact number two is somewhat Dvorakian. The fifth march stands outside the cycle written as a late addition in 1930. Elgar loved watching soldiers ceremonially marching and this comes out in his overture, Cockaigne, sub-titled, (In London Town). Cockaigne is an old name for London from which is derived the name Cockney. The overture is buzzing with London pride and the cheeky cockney, the lovers in the park and in the midst comes what first sounds like a salvation army band and in the later reprise a full swaggering military band marching the Mall to a thumping bass drum.
In 1903 Elgar wrote the Apostles for the Birmingham Festival. It has never achieved the popularity of Gerontius but there are plenty who claim it to be the greater, more professional, work. Within a few years the Apostles was joined by the Kingdom. In early 1904 a three day festival of Elgar works at Covent Garden took place. Included was the first performance of his concert overture, In The South. Edward and Alice had holidayed in Alassio in Italy in the winter of 1903 and the idea hit him to “depict the streams, flowers, hills; the distant snow mountains in one direction and the blue Mediterranean in the other; the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago.” This powerful work has a new more modern sound clearly influenced by Richard Strauss. The best known part of the piece is the central serenade played by a solo viola, one of the most delicious melodies Elgar ever penned. In July he received his knighthood. Now there was no need to have to stay in London. Elgar and his family moved to a large house in Hereford overlooking the Wye. He was reunited not for the first time with home territory and lived there till 1911.
His new surroundings probably influenced his next prominent work, the Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and orchestra written in 1905. It was written to display the skills of the newly founded London Symphony Orchestra. Elgar visited America in that year to conduct his music including the Introduction and Allegro. The work’s main theme is thought to be of Welsh origin. It is in effect a form of neo Baroque concerto grosso with the quartet, usually leaders of their respective sections, and the main body of strings bouncing off of each other. In the middle comes what Elgar described to Jaeger as “a devil of a fugue”.
With the approach of his fiftieth birthday in 1908 Elgar wrote his first symphony which was an immediate success, nationally and internationally. In just over a year, it received over a hundred performances. It starts with a motto theme which dominates much of the work and returns in various moods, most notably in the last movement when it interrupts the proceedings with the sweetest Elgar you are ever likely to hear.
He followed this by the violin concerto commissioned by Fritz Kreisler. Elgar wrote it during the summer of 1910. Although Elgar knew the violin he enlisted help from W. H. Reed, the leader of the LSO. Their friendship would last for the rest of Elgar’s life and Reed wrote a biography, “Elgar As I Knew Him”. This is one of two concertos Matthew will be dealing with in his new series “Concertos 1900-1950”. It is a prodigious work in three movements and 54 minutes in length. The Violin Concerto was a great triumph, indeed Elgar’s last popular triumph. It is best known for the recording made in 1932 at Abbey Road by the 16 year old Yehudi Menuhin with Elgar conducting.
The years leading to the First World War were more troubled for him. It is too glib to say that Elgar lost it with the death of Edward VII which would not have made any difference to him. It was the audience which had lost it, not him. One paints the period as a golden age before 1914 when it was in fact politically in turmoil following Lloyd George’s Peoples Budget, the Parliament Act; the Suffragettes; industrial strikes, an arms race with Germany and civil war looming in Ireland, all of which Mr Asquith took in his stride. It was against this background that Elgar’s second symphony, dedicated to the memory of His Late Majesty, King Edward VII, received its first performance. It has a quote at the foot of the first page from Shelley, “Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!”. And there is one recurring theme throughout and upon which the work ends referred to as the “Spirit of Delight”. It opens with orchestral splendour but also contains moments of quiet contemplation. The slow movement is an elegiac epitaph to the late king. The rushing scherzo is followed by a section where hell breaks loose as the orchestra builds to a nightmarish climax with an insistent accompaniment of percussion as if Elgar sensed what might come. The fourth movement however is reminiscent of earlier times, a sense of Back to the Hansom cab rather than the motor car. Its final fading would leave John Barbirolli with tears down his face. The second symphony did not achieve instant popularity but it remains up there with the first symphony and the violin concerto.
Two other works to mention from this immediate pre-war period are The Music Makers and Falstaff. The Music Makers was yet another choral commission in which Elgar quotes from a number of his earlier works starting with the Engima. The idea of self glorification came from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) in which Strauss quotes from his various musical heroes. The trouble with both is that you have to know the pieces being quoted to make sense of it. All right for musical quizzes. Falstaff is a tone poem based of course on the fat knight from Henry IV. It has always been considered an odd work and even its dedicatee, the conductor Landon Ronald said that he could not make head nor tail of it. It is Elgar beginning to take a new direction. Unfortunately the country took another one.
Elgar was horrified at the prospect of the war but he did his bit becoming a special constable in the local police and joining the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve but his composing output was hardly top notch stuff. The fact was that the mood of the time did not match what he had been writing or what people might have expected from him. It was in any event a mood changing like quick sand as Elgar’s old world was fast disappearing. I once had an LP of music from Joan Littlewood’s “Oh what a Lovely War” except the recordings were repros of the acoustic recordings of the originals. The songs were taken in chronological order and start with the mad optimism of “Belgium put the Kibosh on the Kaiser”. It descends into the plea of “When This Lousy War is Over” and by 1917 there is the heart rending “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. Elgar was not able to get on the bandwagon. Ivor Novello got it just right at the right time. So what did Elgar produce? There was Carillon for speaker and orchestra to pay tribute to Belgium; there was Polonia for orchestra to pay tribute to Poland. He wrote an innocuous ballet, the Sanguine Fan and the music for a children’s Christmas show, Starlight Express (no connection with the long running rock opera of Andrew Lloyd Webber). He wrote some music for verses of Rudyard Kipling, “The Fringes of The Fleet” but Kipling himself withdrew. And in 1917 he wrote the music to “The Spirit of England”, verses by Lawrence Binyon. Land of Hope and Glory of course was played all over the place and Elgar was quite sick of having to conduct it all the time.
Towards the end of the war, Elgar was under the weather and the doctors recommended removal of the tonsils, then considered to be a dangerous operation for a sixty year old. Alice thought it best for his recuperation to get him away from London and to move to the countryside. The previous summer she and Carice had seen a thatched cottage ‘Brinkwells’, near Fittleworth, in Sussex, with views of the South Downs. In April 1918 they rented it again and moved in. Elgar loved it and surprised the family by asking for his Steinway piano to be sent there. He started writing straight away. Four major works came from this period all of which he was writing at the same time. Three of them were chamber works, a violin sonata, a string quartet and a piano quintet, all mediums he had never essayed before. The fourth was his cello concerto. What became the main tune of its first movement he actually wrote down, not knowing what to do with it, the previous year. All three chamber works were completed quite quickly and the quartet and quintet played together at Wigmore Hall. They were well received but they were a far flung thing from the flag waving optimism of the pre-war years. There can be no doubt about the devastating effect the war had had on Elgar, still had as they could hear at night the rumblings from the front from across the channel. One must not however necessarily interpret what one hears as necessarily the direct response to the war. There is an overall pervading sadness particularly in the quartet and quintet which appear to start with pessimism. The same atmosphere permeates the cello concerto. It is though sadness from within, a sadness of compassion, not pessimism. The piano quintet starts out bleakly but its second subject produces a theme that sounds as if out of the palm court orchestra. To me it is both introspective and retrospective as if – my thoughts only – Elgar was looking back sadly and fondly to earlier times. A tea dance perhaps in the Waldorf Astoria. The theme returns in the last movement like a last trickling tear for an epoch never to return. The four works are grouped together as the new re-emergent Elgar, wholly detached from the pre-war years. Yet I venture to question this in one way. I did write earlier to suggest that Falstaff written in 1913 appeared to be taking a new direction. I wonder whether it was at times the same direction that Elgar took in 1918-19. Of course it was different, a Straussian tone poem but containing very similar sections of wistfulness and sadness as the old knight tearfully recalled his youthful days. Here now five years on and with a world war intervening was Elgar replacing his own quixotic character with himself. Musically here is Elgar reaching out to the past. It is just a passing thought.
The cello concerto had a disastrous first performance, with the London Symphony Orchestra in October 1919 under its newly appointed conductor, Alber Coates. Elgar himself was due to conduct his own work but Coates overran his rehearsal time at the expense of Elgar. Alice wrote , “that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder … that brute Coates went on rehearsing.” In contrast with the First Symphony and its hundred performances in just over a year, the Cello Concerto did not have a second performance in London for more than a year. One nineteen year old cellist in the orchestra would not forget the occasion. Giovanni Battista Barbirolli later became a conductor and anglicised his first name to John. His recording of the cello concerto with Jacqueline du Pré is assuredly the most famous of this work.
Elgar seemed set to continue but six months later Lady Alice Elgar died of cancer aged 72 and Elgar came to a complete stop. She had been the driving force behind him, inspiring him, pushing him when he preferred to do anything else other than compose. She had made him the only purpose of her existence. Where would Elgar have gone had she survived? One suspects he would have pursued this new direction, perhaps similar to Sibelius with his sixth and seventh symphonies or his tone poem Tapiola which has similar inspirational sources of woodland forests and nymphs as might have attracted Elgar. Sibelius alas also took an early sauna. Elgar was shattered and lonely. His instincts got him to pack his cases and drive to Worcestershire with his two dogs, which Alice would never previously let into the house, now sitting as his travelling companions in the back of his open car.
Elgar was not short of activities but compositionally he had dried up in a world which no longer seemed interested in his style of music. He conducted, guesting with the London Symphony Orchestra for whom he had previously been chief conductor in 1911 and with the Halle. He recorded nearly all his works in the latest technique of electric microphone recordings. He had previously made acoustic recordings but he left with His Master’s Voice an authoritative legacy of his works, the first composer to do so seriously. He became appointed Master of the Kings Musick and famously he conducted Pomp and Circumstance No 1, the virtual English National Anthem, at the opening ceremony in 1924 of the Empire Games at the new Empire Stadium at Wembley with its twin towers, alas no more. He took up chemistry, took a long cruise which took him up the Amazon; he wrote an anthem for his favourite football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, “He Banged the Leather for Goal”, he wrote the Severn Suite for brass band played by the Foden Motor Works Band at the Crystal Palace; but his great passion was horse racing. Yehudi Menuhin has related how after the famous recording of the violin concerto Elgar looked at his watch to confirm that there was enough time to make it to Newmarket. He produced the odd work, some songs for the Empire Exhibition, a Nursery Suite based like the Wand of Youth suites on airs he had written as a young man. It was dedicated to the newly born Princess Margaret, her older sister Princess Elizabeth (the present queen) and their mother, then Duchess of York.
In 1931 Elgar set eyes upon a semi professional violinist, Vera Hockman, in the orchestra pit at Croydon. She was 40 years younger than him but she set her eyes on him also. There is little doubt that Elgar had eyes for a pretty maiden now and then but for the most part it appears to have been little more than that. Dr David Wright, a composer, who cannot find one good word for Elgar, which itself makes his judgments questionable, suggests something more sinister and which in today’s quest for witch hunts could result in yet another government enquiry to find out why no one complained in the first place and to strip Elgar of his knighthood, his baronetcy and his Royal Philharmonic Society gold medal into the bargain. Vera was the daughter of a Jewish diamond merchant and had married a rabbi with whom she had two children. The marriage was not working and she left. Elgar and she met up and she was invited to Marl Bank his nine bedroom country home in Worcestershire. They only needed one of them. Elgar had found love and inspiration. Her husband did not find their relationship kosher and refused to divorce her.
It was at much the same time that Bernard Shaw came to the aid of the party. He persuaded the BBC who had just founded its own orchestra under Boult to commission a third symphony from Elgar. He began work and was writing at the same time an opera, The Spanish Lady. Neither would be finished in his lifetime. The symphony was more advanced than appear from the sketches. Most of the ideas came from earlier works. There are hints of swagger from earlier times but not the martial splendour; the second movement is short and light, a little reminiscent of the Sanguine Fan; the third movement contains much of the pain which has to be unlocked. The fourth movement starts with energy but…..
Elgar was taken ill and found writing more difficult; his ideas were not all written down but Billy Reed had played sections with him and knew what Elgar was looking for. Elgar then underwent an operation during which it was discovered he had incurable cancer. He stopped writing. He asked Reid not to let anyone tamper with the score but to burn it and thus it so remained. Anthony Payne, a composer, had spent twenty years trying to piece it together but the Elgar trustees would not allow him or anyone to elaborate upon it until, with copyright due to run out in 2004, they realised that someone else might do so. So, they commissioned Anthony Payne himself to do so. If there are weaknesses they are Elgar’s, not Payne’s, and to be fair to Elgar he would, likely as not, have reworked it before publishing had he lived.
Elgar died in 1934. His music of course was completely out of fashion for thirty years and forever linked with Empire. The old generation of conductors began to disappear and we began to hear Elgar under such conductors as Solti, Barenboim and Haitink. As usual these foreigners were acknowledged but Elgar was not in their blood. So it was that Solti conducted at the Festival Hall and then recorded the second symphony. It went at a rate of knots with all the pent up energy that that conductor was known. Of course it was criticised. Had he not listened to the recordings of Boult, Sargent and Barbirolli. Maybe not, but Solti had obviously listened to the recordings of Edward Elgar whose speeds he had reproduced. Of course Elgar had clearly speeded up to fit the recording into the 4 minutes 20 seconds allowed for one side of a 78 rpm shellac disc. Ah well, there’s always an answer. The fact is, it is this later generation of conductors that have revealed that Elgar is international property, just like Beethoven or Brahms.