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Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 55

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edward Elgar
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andrew Litton, conductor / Stephen Hough, piano, plays Rachmaninoff Apr. 19 - 21, 2012
© Paul Horsley

In the early years of the 20th century, while Debussy was abandoning the rules of counterpoint, Stravinsky was fracturing harmony and Schoenberg was defying tonality altogether, the conservative but brilliant Edward Elgar was fast moving to the forefront of English musical life. But Elgar was not content with light-hearted works like the "Enigma" Variations or choral dramas like The Dream of Gerontius. In his world, one the composer's highest callings was to compose a symphony, a piece that would be worthy of the great traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Initially Elgar had pondered a programmatic symphony on the life of the English military hero General Charles George Gordon: His friend August Jaeger had even sketched a synopsis for it. Fortunately, perhaps, Elgar hesitated.

The Gordon project was abandoned shortly afterward. Elgar wanted to write a "pure" symphony free of non-musical connections. "I hold that the symphony without a program is the highest development of art," he said in 1905, expressing a sentiment common to late-19th-century thinking. In 1907 he finally began to compose what his wife would call the "great beautiful tune" of the work, which would become the opening Nobilmente e semplice introduction to the piece. From this spark Elgar felt that he had what he needed to begin the symphony in earnest. It took him until October 1908 to complete it. Jaeger, who was sick and dying at the time, wrote that he was deeply moved by the Adagio, which was "not only one of the greatest slow movements since Beethoven ... but also worthy of that master."

Elgar dedicated the symphony to the conductor Hans Richter, champion of the works of Brahms and Bruckner. Richter, in turn, declared the piece "the greatest symphony of modern times, and not only in this country." Richter himself led the Hallé Orchestra in the world premiere on December 3, 1908, at Manchester's Free Trade Hall. The ovation was beyond anything that Elgar had experienced: "I never heard such frantic applause after any novelty, nor such shouting," Jaeger wrote. "Five times he had to appear before they were pacified. People stood up and even on their seats to get a view." Shortly after this, Elgar composed a Second Symphony, and late in life he made progress toward a Third.  But neither has the sweep and flow of the First, which stands as one of the great English symphonies.

The introduction (Andante) reminded some early listeners of ancient times and places, "such a theme as the Knights of the Grail might have kept step to," one wrote. Elgar indicated in a letter that his intention was actually to create something "simple in intention, noble and elevating, the sort of ideal call-in the sense of persuasion, not coercion or command-and something above the everyday and sordid." The introduction gives way to the skipping Allegro of the first subject proper, whose tonal elusiveness establishes the flavor of the whole movement. A second thematic group begins with a soaring subject in F major, which leads to a forceful development section and recapitulation.

The Allegro molto is a dashing scherzo, richly scored yet fleet on its feet. That the slow movement (Adagio) should grow directly from this movement (and follow it without pause) is a logical extension of the means in which the thematic material of the latter has already been formed from that of the scherzo. "That movement," wrote the verbose Jaeger, "I consider the most beautiful and perfect message of peace, chaste feeling, aloofness from all things mundane and common that has been given to the world since Brahms penned the marvelous Adagio in the Clarinet Quintet." The finale begins with a Lento in D minor that launches into the square-cut, straightforward Allegro, built from two striking themes that are both more than a little reminiscent of Brahms. The finale winds to a finely gauged climax, culminating in a grandly altered reiteration of the first-movement introduction.