Elgar’s Second Symphony at the 2015 Proms

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The BBC Proms are in full swing in London. The annual summer series, featuring over 70 concerts at Royal Albert Hall, has been a magnet for music lovers since 1895 when the British Empire stretched across the globe. It’s a joyful and inclusive cultural event that wipes away any hint of pretension. In addition to reserved seating, inexpensive standing-room tickets are sold, inspiring one conductor to describe the Proms as, “the world’s largest and most democratic music festival.”

On September 12, the festival culminates with the iconic Last Night of the Proms, a unique event which blends stately British pomp and circumstance with the noisy, boisterous atmosphere of a slightly rowdy party. Here is a clip of Sir Edward Elgar’s arrangement of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s patriotic hymn, Jerusalem (a setting of the poem by William Blake), from the 2012 Last Night of the Proms. 

A few weeks ago, Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra presented an exhilarating performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony at the Proms. Before each movement, in the clip below, Elder outlines the work’s autobiographical origins. Completed in 1911, the Symphony is outwardly dedicated to King Edward VII, who died the previous year. Elgar’s close friend and confidant Alice Stuart-Wortley and the death of another friend, Alfred E. Rodewald, seem to have provided deeper inspiration. In the score, Elgar makes a passing reference to Tintagel on the rugged coast of Cornwall in Southwestern England. It’s a location which similarly inspired Arnold Bax (1883-1953) to write this tone poem. The other significant extramusical reference in the score is a quote from Song, one of Shelley’s final poems, written in 1822:

Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
‘Tis since thou art fled away.

These are all interesting autobiographical details…clues to what was going on in Elgar’s mind as he wrote the Second Symphony. But put all of this aside, and you have pure music that stands on its own without a program. In the end, these details are not what make this music truly great.

Elgar’s Second Symphony is constructed with small motivic cells which seem to be restlessly and persistently searching for a way forward. These musical building blocks combine to create music which unfolds over the long arc of time. Dense chromatic harmony occasionally teeters on the edge of losing a tonal center. It’s a celebration of orchestral virtuosity, regal English majesty, and upward sonic sweep. The end of the first movement almost seems to take flight. But there are also moments where we suddenly find ourselves in a haunting and more intimate landscape. These unguarded, and sometimes troubling, glimpses of truth seem always to be lurking beneath the surface. The calm repose at the conclusion of the final movement is one of these moments. It’s not the triumphant climax we might have been expecting, but it’s the only way this symphony could have ended.

  1. Allegro vivace e nobilmente 2:27
  2. Larghetto 21:55
  3. Rondo 38:05
  4. Moderato e maestoso 48:46

  • Find the Hallé Orchestra’s recent recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony, conducted by Sir Mark Elder on Amazon.
  • Find the Hallé Orchestra’s classic recording, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli on iTunes.

The Triumph of Inner Voices

Conductor Sergiu Celibidache wants "More viola!"
Sergiu Celibidache wants more viola.

No, this post isn’t about following your intuition…today we’re talking about musical inner voices, those sometimes inconspicuous lines between the melody and the bass, which are often the essence of a piece’s drama. If you have any doubts about the importance of these lines, often played by violas and second violins in orchestral and string quartet repertoire, watch this short but funny clip of conductor Sergiu Celibidache rehearsing the Adagio from Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. 

Ensemble playing is about teamwork and every part is essential to the whole. Let’s listen to a few orchestra excerpts, which are great examples of the power of inner voices.

Nimrod

Take a moment and think about all of your Facebook friends or cell phone contacts. Could you imagine music which would fit each personality? English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a series of variations on this original theme, each depicting one of his friends. He assigned each variation a cryptic title, leaving audiences to guess who was being represented. The piece has commonly come to be known as the Enigma Variations. The variations run the gamut from lighthearted to fiery. One of the most famous and memorable parts of the piece is Variation IX, a moving chorale dedicated to Elgar’s publisher and close friend, August Jaeger. Listen carefully to the inner voices. Pay attention to the contour of the lines and the way they fit together. Listen for moments of harmonic tension:

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 

Tchaikovsky’s final work, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”, features a triumphantly rousing third movement, followed by a Finale which sinks into the deepest despair (Adagio lamentoso – Andante). What’s interesting is the way Tchaikovsky chooses to write the opening theme of the final movement. As a listener, you might make the logical assumption that the first violins play the prominent descending scale line (F-sharp, E, D, C-sharp, B, C-sharp). But the actual opening line for the first violins is B, E, G-sharp, C-sharp, E-sharp, C-sharp. It sounds pretty strange when played by itself. The second violin part has similar jumps. So who has the famous melody? It turns out that the melody and inner voices alternate back and forth between the first and second violins. Today the second violins in an orchestra typically sit next to the firsts, but in Tchaikovsky’s day, the seconds faced the firsts on the other side of the stage (where the cellos usually are now). Tchaikovsky achieved the nineteenth century equivalent of surround sound.

In this performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, the second violins are seated across from the firsts:

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

In the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a seemingly insignificant inner voice becomes the star of the show. Listen to the supporting voice at 1:11, which mirrors the top voice in contrary motion. As the development section begins, we hear it again (4:28), then more prominently in the trombones. Listen as this inner voice is transformed into a powerful, heroic proclamation played by the whole orchestra (5:28).

What are your favorite inner voices? Share your own listening suggestions in the thread below.

With Watch Magazine, Music Meets Marketing

Watch! Magazine
Watch Magazine

There was a time when major networks, such as CBS and NBC, employed their own orchestras (watch this clip of Arturo Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony) and television shows included a full minute of credits, accompanied by theme music. Revisit the opening of Cheers, compare it to the fast pace of today’s media and consider what we’ve lost. TV theme music allowed for reflection (even if it wasn’t deep reflection) and established the atmosphere of the show.

Interestingly, as media moves online, CBS’s Watch Magazine may be taking a step back in the direction of musical branding. The entertainment and lifestyle magazine recently hired English violinist Charlie Siem to compose and perform a soundtrack, which will be used for marketing and promotion. You can see how the music fits the branding concept here:

Siem’s music draws upon influences from Philip Glass to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Listen to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas TallisElgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor Op.20, and Finzi’s Prelude for String Orchestra in F minor Op. 25  for a sample of the rich English string orchestra tradition which Siem modeled.

Charlie Siem’s Canopy was recorded last December at St. Silas the Martyr Church in London. Siem is joined by the English Chamber Orchestra:

[quote]We like to think the magazine is elegant and refined and glamorous and this music hits those highlights.[/quote]

-Jeremy Murphy, Watch editor in chief 

Happy Independence Day

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John Philip Sousa’s marches embody qualities which are uniquely American. Listen to a British patriotic march like Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and you’ll hear the slow, stately, majestic character of England. By contrast, Sousa’s marches are faster and more brash, reflecting the optimistic innocence of a young country just beginning to flex its muscles on the world stage. Sousa’s marches provide a musical snapshot of the spirit of America around the turn of the twentieth century. For fun, listen to the British Grenadier Guards try to make The Stars and Stripes Forever conform to that regal British style. Do you notice something missing in this performance?

In celebration of Independence Day, let’s listen to one of Sousa’s most emotionally charged marches, Hands Across the Sea, which he composed in 1899. Here, it’s performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble, conducted by Fredrick Fennell. It’s followed by other popular Sousa marches including Washington PostEl Capitan, and The Stars and Stripes Forever. You can find this recording on iTunes and at Amazon.

Hands Across the Sea immediately grabs our attention with small surprises. Listen one more time to the short, rip roaring introduction and pause at 0:07. Think about all the possibilities that could have come next. You probably didn’t expect the musical curve ball that Sousa throws-these two defiant chords, resolving in a surprise D minor. At 1:10 we get another surprise as Sousa moves to B-flat major for the trio section. This melody is as noble as any of Elgar’s marches, but this is nobility through an American lens. Listen to the way the melody plays with our sense of expectation, stepping higher and higher before an almost choral-like resolution.

Now that we’ve heard these marches as Sousa wrote them, let’s finish up with this fun and virtuosic arrangement of The Stars and Strips Forever, played by two violinists from “The President’s Own” Marine Chamber Orchestra: