Elgar’s Symphony No. 1
Notes by TŌN bassoonist Adam Romey
Fits and Starts
Elgar considered the creation of a large-scale symphony to be a crowning musical achievement. Like many composers following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven, he found the task quite daunting. In 1898, he began conceiving of a symphony that would tell the story of British military hero General Charles George Gordon, as a nod to Beethoven’s initial dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon. Over the next three years, his best friend wrote a story outline, Elgar drafted a theme, and his wife reported hearing morsels of symphonic sketches. When a friend offered him a commission in 1901, Elgar declined and abandoned the project. He accepted another commission in 1904, but soon backed out. It wasn’t until 1907 that he finally began work on what would become his first symphony.
Symphony No. 1 was finished in October of 1908 and premiered that December. It was enthusiastically received, and triumphantly declared the first great English symphony. Conductor Hans Richter called it “the greatest symphony of modern times.” Not only did the applause of the audience summon Elgar to the stage five times, the piece was performed more than 80 times around the world over the next year. While this symphony, like most of Elgar’s music, faded from non-British concert programs as the century progressed, it has begun to make a comeback in American concert halls. It has a healthy discography, though primarily by British orchestras, and the piece is admired by listeners and scholars alike.
One of the defining characteristics of both Elgar’s music and personality is the contrast between emotional episodes of vulnerable, inner experience and raw, anxious, unpredictable outbursts. The opening melody of the piece, marked ‘noble and simple’ in the score, begins intimately and steadily gains confidence, before dramatically launching off in other directions. Often, multiple and sometimes conflicting feelings are expressed, such as in the second movement’s alternation between the agitated drama with which it begins, and the punctuations of emotions equally playful, wistful, and melancholic. Considered by many to be the fullest realization of Elgar’s lyricism, the third movement showcases the orchestral forces in both broad sweeps and intimate detail, the way a skilled painter uses different brushes and colors across a canvas. Elgar’s self-doubt and earnest artistic devotion on his journey toward creating this symphony can be heard in the piece itself, particularly in the return of the opening melody at the end of the fourth movement in a grand restatement that was, for him, years in the making.