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In the South

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edward Elgar
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Sir Mark Elder, conductor / Stephen Hough, piano, plays Liszt Jan. 16 - 18, 2014
© Peter Laki

After the triumphant premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899, English musical life expected a symphony from Edward Elgar.  But that turned out to be a tall order, one for which the composer, who became Sir Edward in June 1904, was not quite ready.  (His First Symphony, which would be hailed as ?England's First," was not  completed until 1908).

In the interim-and to prepare for the magnum opus-Elgar composed two concert overtures, ambitious symphonic compositions yet on a smaller scale than a symphony.  Cockaigne (In London Town, 1901), an affectionate tribute to Elgar's home town, was followed by In the South (Alassio), a souvenir from a two-month sojourn on the Ligurian coast of Italy during the winter of 1903/04.  Alassio was the name of the town where the Elgars-the composer, his wife Alice and their daughter Carice-were staying until they had to return to England in a hurry because Elgar had received a dinner invitation from the Prince of Wales (the future King George V).  The composer finished In the South at home in Worcestershire.

In his concert overture, Elgar had no intention of using any Italian melodies as previous visitors from Tchaikovsky to Richard Strauss had done.  His Italian memories are of a much more personal nature, and Elgar remained very much his old English self even on the Riviera.  The influence of Strauss's symphonic poems-from Don Juan to Heldenleben-is evident enough, but Elgar's melodic style is very much his own, as is the way he combines traditional sonata form with the enchanting central episode that takes the place of what would be the development section. 

In a letter to his wealthy friend Frank Schuster who became the work's dedicatee, Elgar offered the following culinary description of the concert overture:  [its ingredients are] ?mixed up in an orchestral dish which with my ordinary orchestral flavouring, cunningly blent, I have put in a warm cordial of spice of love for you."  One of the work's themes was supposedly inspired by Dan the bulldog, another by the name of a village just outside Alassio-Moglio-that elicited a musical response from Elgar.  Happy memories all, one assumes, but the laws of composition called for some symphonic development with a buildup of tension, which happens in a striking passage marked ?Grandioso," where a simple interval of a descending fifth becomes the point of departure for the most dramatic moment of the piece, immediately followed by its opposite-a pastoral passage in a slower tempo, where the solo viola plays an expressive tune (Elgar called it a canto popolare or ?folksong").  Taken over by the solo horn, this melody brings the overture to a point of rest before the recapitulation and the coda allow us to revisit the dynamic and upbeat feelings Elgar associated with his time in the South.