Elgar 1- Anatomy of “the” theme, Part II

I remember my first encounter with Elgar 1 very vividly. I’d only known Enigma, Falstaff and the Cello Concerto for many years when I learned he’d written two symphonies. Excited and curious, I went hunting recordings and found only two- one by Haitink (which I still haven’t heard!) and one by Solti, which I bought and took home (I had fond memories of a live Falstaff he conducted with the CSO when I was in high school, which I had taped and listened to many times.

When I got home and popped in the disc, that huge opening tune made a huge impression on me- on the one hand, it sounds so simple and majestic, yet it seemed to conjure up not just one emotion but a whole storm of intense and contradictory feelings. There seemed to be hope, sadness, regret, resignation, resolve, nobility, uncertainty and serenity.

That impression has stayed with me through the long years it took to get a chance to finally conduct the piece and has only intensified as I’ve repeatedly rehearsed and performed it. I wrote the other day about how the place of the theme in the symphony, but I thought it would be interesting to see if I could identify why the theme has the power to create such contradictory and complex emotional reactions. The score is here.

Perhaps the most important tool Elgar uses to create this friction between stability and strength on one hand and instability and tension on the other is meter. The opening of the symphony is in 4/4, the most stable of time signatures, with the theme starting squarely on the downbeat- although the theme returns several times in the work, Elgar never again sets it in this way, instead he sets it in cut time, 6/4 or in 4/4 starting in the middle of the bar instead of on the downbeat.

However, if you take away the bass line and sing only the melody at the beginning it is not at all clear that the music is even in 4/4- the melody begins with 6 groups of 3 beats, strongly implying ¾ rather than 4/4, then ends by alternating 2 and 3 beat groupings. The end result of all this asymmetry is that you end up with a fairly unstable 7 bar phrase rather than the expected 8 bars.

And what is the effect of all this on the bass line? While the tune winds its way through polymetric complexities, the bass line is very square- emphatically in 4/4, and mostly sticking to the pattern established in the first bar- low note, leap up, step down, leap up. When the tune reaches its cadence in the 7th bar, it sounds as if the bass line is almost taken by surprise- the melody lands on the dominant two full beats before the bass, which only finally gets there on the 4th beat of the bar.

When the 2nd phrase begins, it not only occurs a bar earlier than it should, but in a weaker form. When the melody is heard for the first time in bar 3, the tune begins squarely on the downbeat over a tonic A-flat quarter note in the bass, also on the down beat. When the 2nd phrase begins at figure 1, the bass seems still to be catching up- there is no tonic note on the downbeat, but instead the tied over remains of the dominant. When we finally get the A-flat on the 2nd beat it almost functions as a dominant of the IV- moving immediately to D-flat. This absence of a root proves to be very important as the symphony unfolds- the “failed” restatement of the tune at the end of the 1st mvt seems to be an outgrowth of the absence of that A-flat at the beginning of the phrase, and at the very end of the symphony, when the tune begins (fig 146), the root isn’t heard until almost a beat later.

I could go on, but I think one can see that all the complexity and conflict of emotion one can hear in this opening is there to be found in the way the music itself is put together- on the one hand there is a diatonic tune in a diatonic setting, in a simple, consistent setting. From this we get the nobility, the serenity, the hopefulness. On the other hand, Elgar undermines the meter, plays the rhythmic construction of melody and accompaniment against each other and in doing so, gradually de-stabalizes the harmony and the phrase structure. From this, we get uncertainty, a sense of loss, of regret and even nostalgia. When apparently simple music inspires complex reactions, whether in Elgar, Haydn or Schubert, there is always a good reason, right there, in the construction of the text.

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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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