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.

Pluto, the Renewer

Pluto
An image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons flyby.

 

When Gustav Holst finished his seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32 in 1917, Pluto had yet to be discovered. By the time the distant celestial body was spotted in 1930, four years before Holst’s death, the composer had grown ambivalent about The Planets, believing that the work’s popularity had unfairly overshadowed his later compositions.

Fast-forward to 2000, when conductor Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned British composer and administrator of the Holst foundation Colin Matthews to “complete” The Planets with a six minute movement entitled, Pluto, the Renewer. Matthews, who admits that he had “mixed feelings” about the project, was up against a series of significant challenges. Holst’s masterwork feels complete as its final movement, Neptune, the Mystic  fades into intergalactic eternity. Additionally, Holst’s music is more concerned with the astrological properties of the planets than with astronomy. Pluto, three billion miles away on the edge of our solar system, remains astrologically fuzzy.

In the end, Matthews’ music may be as superfluous to Holst’s suite as Pluto (reclassified as a “dwarf planet” in 2006) is to the solar system. Still, Pluto, the Renewer is interesting music that deserves to be heard, especially in light of last week’s stunning images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. At times, Matthews music echoes the colorful orchestration and otherworldly atmosphere of Holst’s original score. Similar sounds can be heard in John Williams’ haunting 2001 film score for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Listen here and here).

  • Find this recording on iTunes, Amazon
  • Listen to Gustav Holst’s The Planets here.

Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony: Nature’s Lament

British troops in the trenches near Thiepval, France in 1916.

 

With a title like A Pastoral Symphony, you might expect Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, completed in 1922, to evoke bubbling brooks and the quiet hedgerows of England’s “green and pleasant land.” But listen, and you’ll hear music which, instead, suggests a melancholy alienation from nature. The music feels strangely hazy and shell-shocked. Its pastures are the battlefields of the First World War, not the bucolic scenes of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Schubert song.

At the age of 41, Vaughan Williams served in the war as an ambulance driver for the Royal Army Medical Corps. This was the moment when the world caught its first, real glimpse of weapons of mass destruction. New, dehumanizing technology included tanks, poison gas, flame throwers and primitive air power. Soldiers were reduced to “killing machines” as trench warfare and the concept of attrition wiped away any pretense of gallant heroism. Vaughan Williams described the Symphony’s genesis, saying,

It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.

A Pastoral Symphony can be heard as nature’s lament. It seems rooted in the magnificent permanence of nature and simultaneously human separation from nature. In the context of music history, it may represent one of the final attempts to connect with the Romantic pasture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Considering Ray Kurzweil’s theory of exponential technological growth, think about the ways in which music permanently changed in the second half of the twentieth century, with influences such as the automobile, the atomic bomb and the computer. Even Mahler’s nine symphonies gradually progressed from bird songs (in the First Symphony) towards dissonance (in the Ninth).

In some ways, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony shakes up our concept of symphonic form. Most symphonies develop through linear motion, leading to a climax. This music, built on modes, parallel harmony, and the pentatonic scale, floats into more static territory. Each of the Pastoral Symphony’s movements ends by trailing off, denying us a clear sense of resolution.

The first movement (Molto moderato) is a restless sonic landscape of constantly shifting Impressionistic color and harmony. As each event unfolds into the next, our sense of key and tonal center seems to continuously slip away. Everything feels elusive, as if we’re chasing shadows.

Consider the musical colors created as woodwind lines move in and out of the thickly layered string sound (2:58, for example). Also, listen for the oboe and English horn, which evoke the traditional sounds of the pasture.

Listen to the chord at 1:36 and notice the way it stops the music in its tracks. You’ll hear this ominous hint of darkness return throughout the movement, remaining inescapable and unresolved.

In the middle of the second movement, a trumpet cadenza suggests a battlefield bugle call. Vaughan Williams intended it to be played on a valveless, “natural” trumpet.

It’s the final movement which ultimately makes A Pastoral Symphony feel so unsettling. The human voice suddenly emerges at the opening of the movement in the form of the soprano’s wordless, pentatonic lament. As the movement progresses, the music seems to be reaching for a moment of transcendent resolution. But at 7:03, the bottom falls out and we’re again confronted with the soprano’s opening line, this time in the strings. At the end of the movement, we hear the Symphony’s first true moment of resolution. Then the tonal center begins to dissolve. The soprano’s lament returns, fading into eternity.

This performance, with the Hallé Orchestra and conductor Sir Mark Elder, is part of the brand new recording I featured last week:

1. Molto Moderato:

2. Lento moderato-Moderato maestoso:

3. Moderato pesante:

4. Lento:

The Hallé Records Vaughan Williams

CDHLL7540This month, conductor Sir Mark Elder and the Manchester, UK-based Hallé Orchestra released the latest in a series of recordings of the music of twentieth century English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The recording includes Vaughan William’s Pastoral SymphonyFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” and The Wasps Overture. You can browse through the orchestra’s extensive discography here.

The Hallé’s long association with the music of Vaughan Williams extends back to the mid-century tenure of conductor Sir John Barbirolli, a friend and champion of the composer. In 1956, Barbirolli and the orchestra gave the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony.

Written in 1910, the hazy and ethereal Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is built on an English Renaissance hymn melody. Listen to Tallis’ original music from 1567, “Why Fum’th in Fight?” here.

This music is spacial. A string orchestra is divided into three antiphonal sections (the full orchestra, a smaller group made up of the first stands of each section, and a string quartet), evoking the sections of a pipe organ. Listen to the way this piece seems to float through time, moving to unpredictable places and capturing a sense of mystery:

A Pastoral Symphony was completed in 1922. Its title doesn’t refer to the serene English countryside. Instead, the music can be heard as an elegy to the dead of World War I. Listen to the first movement here.

Overture: The Wasps was written in 1909 as incidental music for a Trinity College production of Aristophanes’ play. You may hear occasional echoes of a future Hollywood film sound in this music.

Le Corsaire at the Proms

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Let’s celebrate the end of the week with Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture. The high voltage performance below, featuring Sir Mark Elder conducting the Manchester (UK)-based Hallé Orchestra, is from this past summer’s BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall.

You can take the significance of this overture’s name with a grain of salt. Written in 1844, it was first performed under the title, La tour de Nice. Then it was renamed Le corsair rouge after James Fenimore Cooper’s 1827 novel, The Red Rover and again renamed The Corsair after Lord Byron’s poem. Berlioz also published articles and provocative music criticism in the newspaper, journal Le Corsaire.

Le Corsaire starts off with a bang, instantly grabbing our attention with a swoosh of virtuosity. Like so much of Berlioz’s opium-influenced music, there’s something slightly schizophrenic and deranged about this overture. It keeps us off balance, harnessing the power of the unexpected. Rhythmically, it seems on the edge of spinning out of control, with notes frequently appearing on the “wrong” beats. Notice the strange, parallel harmony (1:31) and sudden interjections (3:58).

Berlioz expanded the orchestra (trombones and tuba, for example) and mixed instruments in bold and innovative new ways. In the passage beginning at 4:47, listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments. Also pay attention to the obsessive repeated rhythm in the strings (later picked up by the chirping woodwinds) and the unpredictable bass interjections. There’s a sudden new dimension to the sound as the cellos double the violins at 5:00, but like everything else in this overture, the new sound emerges and then, suddenly, it’s gone, like an opium-inspired vision.

It’s all resolved with an earth-shatteringly powerful exclamation point. Elder brings out the trumpets for this final chord. You’ll see them raise their bells for added volume.