Elgar 1- Anatomy of “the” theme

I’ve had so much to say about Elgar 1 lately in the run up to my recent performance of it with the UW Symphony that I haven’t been able to channel it all into readable form, especially while continuing to travel.

Finally, with a slightly calmer schedule, I thought I would share a few thoughts about this most remarkable piece. What better place to begin than at the beginning.

Program notes for this symphony (you can get the score in pdf format from Petrucci here) often refer to the fact that it begins with a long and majestic theme (referred  to here as the “motto theme”).

Not exactly. It begins with a note- a low A-flat (the tonic note of the symphony) in timpani, cello and bass, a gesture which lands a bar and is repeated. It is not immediately clear why these two bars of A-flat are here- the downbeat of the theme in bar three does a perfectly fine job of establishing tonality with a C in the melody and an A-flat followed by an E-flat in the bass. The very fact that these first 2 A-flats seem un-necessary makes this gesture’s importance all the more clear.

The melody, which begins in bar three and by itself comprises the entire Introduction, must have raised many eyebrows when the symphony was premiered. Symphonies are since Beethoven are usually built around compact motives, not entire melodies- this is not only an entire melody, but a long one. In fact, the entire introduction consists of just two complete statements of the melody.

And if symphonic themes tend to be compact (think of the beginning of Beethoven’s 5th) and fragmentary, often without an ending (think of his 6th), they also tend to disintegrate- think of the main theme of the first movement of the Eroica and the “famous C#.” That C# not only disrupts the melody from reaching its naturally conclusion (we don’t hear the complete tune until the Coda 18 minutes later), it unleashes all the drama that is to come. On the other hand, Elgar’s Introduction is more like a self-contained piece of music in its own right- the first phrase begins on the tonic and cadences on the domninant. The second is more elaborate and finally returns us squarely to the tonic. Not only is there no fateful C# to disrupt and destabilize the theme, there is only one accidental in the ENTIRE INTRODUCTION OF THE SYMPHONY!

Symphonic openings tend to be about departures- think of Brahms 1 as a dramatic example or Schumann 3 as a joyful one. Tchaik 5 is probably the closest thing to a model Elgar might have had for his use of this opening theme, but Tchaikovsky is careful to use his introduction to de-stabalize his theme and to hint at its open-endedness.

Not only does the theme itself form a perfect, self-completing whole, Elgar’s setting of it does all it possibly can to reinforce that sense of completeness. He begins with a single note- A flat, then embarks on the theme with only two voices- the theme in octaves in the viola, bassoon, clarinet and flute and the bass line in octaves in the cellos and basses. After cadencing on the dominantthe bar before 1, the second half of the theme, which I mentioned is more complex and elaborate, elicits a more complex and elaborate setting, at its highpoint introducing a third voice in the horns.

Then, after reaching the summit of the theme, it gradually works its way back home, returning first to a two voice texture and finally landing on a single pitch- the A-flat which began the symphony, followed by a simple, single voice line which continues on to the repetition of the theme.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of a musical arch than this first statement of the theme.

Elgar now simply repeats the theme, only this time fortissimo and fully harmonized in four voices. In doing so, he keeps the same phrase structure and harmonic rhythm, but by expanding from 2 to four voices he is able to reveal the first “hidden” chromatic note in the piece 6 bars after 3, a D natural which functions as the leading tone in a V of V chord. It’s as if the chromatic note was there the first time, hidden in the material only to be revealed later when all the voices appeared for the first time.

The melody reaches a point of something like noble ecstasy then recedes, quickly dropping from fortissimo to piano to pianissimo, and from four to three, to two voices, and finally to a unison A flat. This time, instead of using the A flat to launch the bridge melody in one voice, Elgar uses the bridge idea to once and for all reduce all that wealth of melody back down to a single, sustained low A-flat. The same note with which the symphony began.

So, the 2nd statement of the theme forms another perfect arch, but also reveals a much larger arch, one which begins with a single note, rises to a fully harmonized, fortissimo statement of the theme, and then returns again to the single pitch with which we began.

We’ve now discovered that the theme is an arch, but can also be a pillar of a larger arch, and we’ll see through out the piece, there is always an arch which connects the repetitions of this theme.

Ab—–Introduction (Big Ass Arch)——Ab

Theme 1x (arch)———-Theme 2x (arch)

The question now is what exactly Elgar means- we know this is a symphony in A flat from the title, we know he’s done all he could to establish A flat has the home key. In fact, it is almost as if he has done too much- the diatonic near perfection of this opening seems too good to be true, more like an idealized memory of home than an actually evocation of home. What follows seems to prove that, indeed, we were far from home all along.
The main body of the 1st mvt begins far, far away in D minor. Where it not for the introduction, one might be more justified in calling this a symphony in D minor (with all the historical baggage that description would carry thanks to Beethoven and Bruckner)- D minor is the main key of both the first and last movements of the symphony, a tri-tone away from the tonic. What’s more, after 3 minutes with only one accidental, we are now drowning in chromaticism. For me, this symphony begins with a memory of home from far away, followed by an epic journey- a symphonic equivalent of The Odyssey.

Elgar uses the opening theme to bracket the exposition of the first movement, which works itself up to a crisis point of drama.

—————————–Enormous Big Ass Arch———————————–

Introduction (motto)————-Exposition——————–Closing Theme(motto)

On one side, you have the Introduction, on the other, a brief reminiscence of the melody, now in C major, again mostly in two voices with a furtive third voice in the flute and bassoon introducing the only non C major note, another hidden bit of chromaticism. He’s also begun to shorten the theme, abandoning it after its first half.

Again there follows another dramatic span- a truly epic development which finally seems to collapse into itself,  ending with the same nostalgic themes between 30 and 31 that it began with between 21 and 22. Just before 31, there is a return of the opening theme, now in D major. Elgar continues to uncover hidden chromatic possibilities in his previously purely diatonic theme- there are several revealed before the melody has even left the note on which it begins, and several more uncovered on the last note. It’s also even shorter- he doesn’t even finish the first entire phrase. The structure of the development nearly forms a palindrome (the descriptive titles of the themes are used purely for pragmatic purposes and are only my own)-


18 “motto” 19 “seeking” 21 “questioning”  22 “exploring”  24 “crisis”  26 “storm” 29 “crisis” 29+5 “exploring”  30 “questioning”  31-11 “motto” 31 “seeking”

All of which forms another Enormous Big Ass Arch.

Only at the end does Elgar switch the order of the motto and seeking themes, which allows him to use that them to make a seamless return to the recapitulation. Again we’ve had a perfect arch, bracketed by statements of the motto theme.

After breaking so many rules of sonata form in the Introduction, it is interesting how doctrinaire the rest of the movement is (other than its harmonic scheme). The recap forms a near-perfect counterbalance to the exposition, and by the end of it, the harmonic stability and simplicity of the Introduction seems a distant memory. By now we expect return of the motto theme at the end of the recap, but its appearance in A-flat seems almost. If the key is familiar, the setting is not. Instead of beginning with a stabilizing repetition of the tonic note, the theme begins in first inversion, over C instead of A-flat. Instead of 1 or 2 voices, there are now a multitude, and the theme no longer stands on its own, but is mixed with the “seeking” theme. We now see that the curious overlap of these themes at the beginning and end of the development was no accident. With the arrival of A-flat, we wonder if we’re nearly home, but this proves to be the most heart-wrenching memory of home yet. The theme aspires to the sort of stable conclusion that began the symphony, but fails, disintegrating instead into statements of the seeking and crisis themes, followed by a Coda which is all shadows and longing. By the end of the movement, even the final statement of the theme and the single low A-flat which ends the movement feel like rueful reminders of how far from home we remain. It’s another perfect arch from beginning to end, from  low A-flat to low A flat , but one that brings not fulfillment, but that drives home the tragedy of far away home remains.

More remarkably, this is the last memory of home we’ll have for a long time. It’s not until the beginning of the Finale that we get a reminder of where we came from, and where we are trying to return to.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Elgar 1- Anatomy of “the” theme”

  1. Erik K

    These kinds of posts are awesome…they totally make me want to listen to the music with all this new information in mind. I would put the chances of me listening to the Elgar 1 this weekend at 100%. Thanks for that.

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Elgar 1- Anatomy of “the” theme, Part II

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