I like Elgar’s Symphony Number One in A flat major for its tunes and the prominent cello part so I’ve selected it as the first of my introductions to classical music.
A brief introduction to Elgar
Elgar is always considered to be a very English composer – Land of Hope and Glory, the Malvern Hills and all that. However, as any CD inlay card should tell you, his musical legacy was as much German as English and this symphony owes its inheritance as much to Brahms as anyone else.
His first symphony was written during 1907 and 1908. Rudyard Kipling was winning a nobel prize for literature, Baden Powell was forming the scouts and Campbell-Bannerman was prime minister, in the years leading up to Lloyd George’s people’s budget. Free school meals were introduced in 1907 and the next year pensions were introduced for people over 70. It was a time that Britain was becoming conscious of its standing in the world (recently fighting wars in South Africa) just as its pre-eminence was slipping (German raw materials production were starting to rival Britain’s).
An introduction to the symphony
This symphony is structured in the basic symphony form. There are four movements. The main theme that begins the first movement is repeated at the end of the final movement. The second movement is a scherzo – quicker than average – and the third movement is slow. However, the piece is in A flat major – the first note you hear in the piece is an A flat – and is the only major symphony to be in that key.
The first movement starts with a tune in the cello section – probably one of the main reasons that I’m fond of it.
The second movement is frankly a bit scrappy but at around seven minutes long, it’s not too much to endure. It also begins with the main theme. It is in f sharp minor which is about as far from A flat as you can get so it can be a surprise on the ear. It’s also a difficult key to play in. The theme gets passed across the string section at the start of the movement and I always enjoyed watching other sections struggle (particularly the violas) before inevitably making a hash of it myself. I’ve never thought that Elgar has been particularly good at the bits in music where he plays around with the theme to develop it and takes it into different keys. This movement is a particularly good illustration of his weaknesses.
The third movement makes up for it and remind you that Elgar can write a good tune. If you like Nimrod, you’ll like this. The movement begins in the same way as Nimrod, with a note hung-over by the violins from the end of the previous movement – a useful reminder not to clap (which was actually traditional during Elgar’s time). Amazingly, it’s almost exactly the same notes that make up the scrappy theme in the second movement – just played a bit slower.
The final movement unwinds slowly (or if you don’t like it, takes a while to get going). However, after a meandering theme on the clarinet it resolves into a brisk march. The movement as a whole is about 10 minutes long and the last couple of minutes are taken up with bringing together all of the main themes. This extract shows the return of the tune that the piece began with.
The symphony’s reception
The piece debuted at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, which has a pretty fine tradition of seminal music concerts. It was loved by audiences and performed 100 times in the first year. As ever with Elgar, it wasn’t particularly well-received by critics or his peers. Shostakovich described it as one of the finest symphonies of the twentieth century but the extent to which that’s a compliment (for a piece finished in 1908) depends on when he said it. Elgar always struggled to get critical acclaim because mostly he was writing in a style that wasn’t pushing the boundaries of artistic exploration (more Coldplay than the Beatles).
I discovered this piece whilst playing in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra and we took it on a four week tour of South Africa in 1998 – si it reminds me of happy times playing in provincial town halls, schools and concert venues around the south and west coasts of SA.
What happened next
Elgar went on to write a second symphony shortly afterwards and an unfinished third symphony, neither of which are as popular. Although most of his famous tunes were already written, Falstaff and the Crown of India suite are both good pieces of music which are worth a listen.
If you’d like more information about the piece, this BBC Radio 3 summary is a good place to start.