Program note: Elgar Symphony No. 1

Monday, August 8, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55

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

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Composed: 1904, 1907-1908
Length: c. 52 minutes

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and solo piano

English composer Sir Edward Elgar came from a large family of modest means. As a piano tuner and organist, Elgar’s father could provide his son with basic exposure to music, but there was no money for formal training. Recognition came slowly for Elgar, and the sustained effort it took to write a full-fledged, uncommissioned symphony was not possible for a composer piecing together a living through freelancing and teaching. With the resounding success of his Enigma Variations in 1899, Elgar, already in his forties, could finally seriously consider tackling the genre.

A hint towards his approach and the pressure he felt in composing his first symphony can be seen in a class lecture Elgar gave in 1906. He was discussing the Brahms symphonies, which were universally revered in England at this time:

I hold that the symphony without a programme [or story-line] is the highest development of art…. Some writers are inclined to be positive that the symphony is dead. Perhaps the form is somewhat battered by the ill-usage of some of its admirers…but when the looked-for genius comes, it may be absolutely revived.

Elgar followed his own lead, eschewing a storyline in his symphony, simply writing that “there is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” The work enjoyed wildly enthusiastic responses from audiences and received over 100 performances during the year after its premiere.

What to listen for

  • First movement: the opening movement is lush and wide-ranging. To help you track its structure, keep the two main themes in mind: the opening noble melody accompanied by a slow, steady walking bass, and the soaring, craggy second theme that comes in suddenly after a brief orchestral pause.
  • Second movement: as in the first movement, there are two starkly contrasting themes here. The first is a scurrying line in the violins, followed by a gruff march in the violas, and the second is a series of lighthearted skipping and whistling tunes featured in the flutes and then the clarinets. As the movement winds down, the scurrying violin theme reappears in slower and slower form, until it morphs into the radiant theme of the third movement, which follows without break.
  • Third movement: this is one of Elgar’s finest achievements, a noble and moving adagio that ends in hushed intimacy.
  • Fourth movement: fleeting references to the first movement’s noble opening theme in the mysterious, slow beginning are finally allowed to bloom in the powerful conclusion, where it reappears in fully adorned triumph for a glorious denouement.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi