The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us celebrate Brit Grit after the Manchester terrorist attack with Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

May 24, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

First came the unforgettable.

Then came the unforgivable.

In the first case, I am talking about the woefully under-attended performance on Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (below) under its outgoing maestro Edo de Waart.

The MSO played the Overture to the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody” by Ernest Bloch, with principal cellist Susan Babini as soloist; and the Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar.

In each case, all sections of the orchestra performed stunningly well and the caliber of performance made you wonder: “Why don’t we hear this group more often?”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra used to tour to Madison every year or so. It should do so again.

Then not long after the concert came word of the deadly terrorist attack by a suicide bomber at a pop concert in Manchester, England.

Sure, sometimes these things just happen. But coincidences can have power.

The Ear can’t think of a more stately and forceful statement of British fortitude and stoicism – the same grit that saw Britain through the Nazi blitz — than the poignant march-like opening of the first movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

Chances are you don’t know the symphony.

Chances are you know Elgar from his “Pomp and Circumstance” Marches, from his “Enigma Variations” for orchestra, from his Cello Concerto, from his Violin Concerto, from the violin miniature “Salut d’amour.”

But this is grand and great Elgar (below) who, like Brahms, turned to writing symphonies only late in his life.

We don’t hear Elgar’s first symphony often enough.

And this just happens to be the right time, both because of the world-class performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and because the symphony was premiered in 1908 — in Manchester — and then went on to be popular enough to have some 100 performances in its first year.

But it has fallen out of favor. The last time the Ear heard it live was years ago when the UW Symphony Orchestra played it under the baton of guest conductor and UW-Madison alumnus Kenneth Woods (below), who now leads the English Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Mahler Festival.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a complete recording from the BBC Proms in 2012. Perhaps you will only listen to the opening movement, or even just the opening of the opening movement, with its moving theme that recurs throughout and then returns at the end.

But however much you listen to — and you shouldn’t miss the glorious slow movement – it seems a fitting choice to share today.

After all, as Leonard Bernstein once said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

If you have another choice of music to listen to on this deadly occasion, leave word and a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

Solidarity through music!


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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