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.

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: