The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: There is more to graduation and commencement — and to British composer Sir Edward Elgar — than “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.” We need to hear more Elgar.

May 20, 2012
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend once again brings graduation and commencement ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other universities, colleges and all kinds of schools all around the country will follow soon.

And many proud graduates, parents, family members and friends will hear the familiar strains of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major – which is still a stirring and appropriate choice of music for a processional. It may be a cliché, but it works.

But as a recent NPR interview with Baltimore Symphony conductor Marin Alsop (below) made clear, there is much more to the music of Elgar than that old standby, wonderful as it is.

There is also more, much more, than the “Enigma” Variations and the Cello Concerto, his other two most popular works performed in concert halls.

For example, there is the “Salut d’amour” which the The Ear thinks is one of the most lovely pieces of violin salon music ever composed. It is  at the bottom; take a listen and see if you agree.

But there are also bigger pieces by the relatively untrained Elgar (below) that we should know better and hear more often. Like Brahms, Elgar struggled to write symphonies and composed them later in life – as almost everyone after Beethoven did.

But Marin Alsop takes NPR’s Scott Simon and listeners through a crash course it Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, which I heard conducted here by Kenneth Woods (below), a Madison native and graduate of West High School and the UW who is now the conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan in Cardiff, Wales. Several years ago, Wood returned to Madison to conductor the UW Symphony Orchestra in Symphony No. 1 (below). It proved to be an exciting and enlightening performance by a great Elgar advocate.

I thought the discussion between Alsop and Simon, complete with musical snippets from each movement of the Symphony No. 1, which was premiered in 1908, proved terrific and illuminating. See it and hear it for yourself:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/05/06/151884589/elgars-belated-symphony-majestic-noble-and-perfectly-british

But I was puzzled by one thing: They see Elgar as a great representative of the kind of noble majesty of Edwardian England – and he is. They are 100 percent right on that score.

But neither of them remarked on the devastating effect of World War I, which decimated English society and left a lasting effect on the arts and so much more. World War I changed everything. That’s a major reason why Elgar’s music summons up a different world, a more reassuring and kinder, gentler world, a more stable world based on a strictly stratified and classist society. Think “Downton Abbey.”

Anyway, listen to the discussion and musical excerpts on this NPR broadcast and then let The Ear know what you think and which pieces by Sir Edward Elgar you love best and in what performances.

Maybe we should even make Graduation Weekend each year also  Sir Edward Elgar Weekend, and use it as a time to reconsider his work, which in many ways still remains underestimated and underperformed more than a century later.


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