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

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:

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.


  1. […] Classical music: There is more to graduation and commencement – and to British composer Sir Ed… […]


    Pingback by great compositions/performances: Edward Elgar – Salut d’amour Op 12 Ion Marin conduction the Berliner Philharmoniker | euzicasa — June 27, 2014 @ 9:03 am

  2. […] Classical music: There is more to graduation and commencement – and to British composer Sir Ed… […]


    Pingback by GREAT COMPOSITIONS/PERFORMANCES: Berliner Philharmoniker – Edward Elgar Salut d’amour op. 12 2010 | euzicasa — May 1, 2014 @ 8:12 am

  3. […] Classical music: There is more to graduation and commencement – and to British composer Sir Ed… ( […]


    Pingback by Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra – June 5, 2011: Elgar – Salut d’amour (encore) | Reed Pros — June 17, 2012 @ 12:00 am

  4. I’d been thinking just recently that I wished we could hear more Elgar,or that I knew his work better. I really like his sound and his quintessential Brit-ness. Although the last time I heard a piece I thought must be Elgar, it turned out to be William Walton!


    Comment by westmelrose — May 20, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  5. I think most of the English composers are unjustly ignored in this country. All we ever hear from Vaughan Williams is The Lark Ascending and Britten is relegated to the Ceremony of Carols and The Young Person’s Guide. And Walton — does anyone ever perform him? Why do you think this is?

    By the way, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is one of my favorites. There is such longing and sadness in the cello in the first movement. I have listened to the du Pre recording so many times, but I still here tragedy.


    Comment by Matt Friedman — May 20, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    • Hi Matt,
      You are absolutely right.
      We do hear very little of the British composers, except for Benjamin Britten, especially Gerald Finzi (one of my favorites) was well as Sir Arnold Bax and Hubert Parry as well as the better known names you mention.
      I am not sure why it is , though in America we have always tended to favor the German repertoire followed by the French and Russian. Nobody does pastoral like the Brits. But the music tends to be less forceful or sentimental than the others.
      Still, some performers and others are trying to change that.
      Naxos Records has put out a very large number of works by British or English composers.
      The pianist Stephen Hough, also British has tried to champion some of those composers and newer ones.
      So has Andrew Sewell, the conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra who was born in New Zealand and who also trained in the UK with Simon Rattle.
      A revival or renaissance of English music would be a good theme to organize a season around for some local or national ensemble, no?
      Thank you for reading and replying with such a good point.


      Comment by welltemperedear — May 20, 2012 @ 9:25 am

      • Two comments:

        I love Elgar’s music. Top of my list…the Cello Concerto, especially the 3rd movement Adagio, but also that opening theme from the first movement…and the “Nimrod” variation from the “Enigma” Variations. Such moving music.

        Graduation marches: How about Grieg’s Homage March from “Sigurd Jorsalfar?” That’s the music I marched to when I graduated from Trinity College (Connecticut) many years ago.

        Anders Yocom


        Comment by Anders Yocom — May 20, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

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