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.

Ten Tips for Youth Orchestra Students

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms

At its best, orchestra playing is a unique combination of artistry and technical craft. It’s a skill which develops over time. As musicians play together, they develop increasing sensitivity and cohesiveness. With the help of a visionary conductor, a disparate group of highly skilled individuals is forged into a team.

Whether you’re a member of a student ensemble or an amateur performing in a community orchestra, here are a few orchestra playing tips to consider:

  1. Know how your part fits. Preparation goes beyond learning the notes. Be sure to listen to recordings of the piece you’re playing. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Pay attention to sections where the tempo or dynamics change.
  2. Feel the rhythm. Practice with a metronome and pay attention to the subdivisions within larger beats. When playing in the orchestra, feel a sense of collective rhythm. Be careful not to rush, especially in difficult fast passages. Even when it’s fast, you often have more time than you think you have, so fill out every beat. Anchor on important beats. Organize and group notes in ways which allow them to flow naturally. Carefully place pizzicatos so they don’t speak early. For soft pizzicatos consider just touching the string with the tip of your finger and release. Don’t forget to breathe.
  3. Use multiple senses. Imagine how you want the music to sound as you see the notes on the page. Listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re a string player, use peripheral vision to keep track of the section leader’s bow, and other bows around you. Make sure you’re in the same part of the bow as the leader and try to match bow speed. And, of course, watch the conductor.
  4. Bring a pencil, eraser and mute. 
  5. Pay attention to balance. Many students would be surprised to hear how softly professional string players can play. A soft dynamic in orchestra repertoire is generally much softer than the same dynamic in solo repertoire. It also requires a different tone color. If someone else in the orchestra has a solo line (usually in the woodwinds or brass), get out of the way and make sure the soloist doesn’t have to force to be heard.
  6. Play for the team. Always be mindful that you’re part of a collective sound. Never try to stick out. Listen to the players around you and blend in terms of sound and intonation.
  7. “Music Police” kill the music. If you hear a mistake, don’t point it out to your colleague. They probably also heard it and will try their best to not repeat it. “Music police” can create a debilitating and backstabbing atmosphere which kills real music making. Never react to a mistake, especially in a performance. Just stay in the “zone” of the piece.
  8. Be ready when the conductor is ready. It’s okay to drop out to mark an occasional bowing change, but never make the conductor wait for you. Use direct eye contact with conductors whenever possible.
  9. Where you sit isn’t important. Every part is essential. If you’re playing second violin, you often have rich inner voices and supporting lines which need to be brought out. Because it’s harder to hear, the people in the back of a section have the hardest job in terms of precision.
  10. Enjoy the sound around you. 

“Mam-bo!”

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a memorable performance of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2007 BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert HallYou can hear them play the full Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here.

The Mambo has transcended West Side Story to become a cultural icon. It’s almost like a twentieth century Ode to Joy.

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.