“What people haven’t begun to realise,” John Barbirolli would say, “is that with Elgar’s death the great line of symphonic composers came to an end. I will ‘bracket’ him for you without hesitation: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar.” However debatable Barbirolli’s roll-call (he was, after all, a magnificent interpreter of Sibelius), there is no doubting his devotion to Elgar, particularly at a time when Elgar’s popular standing was low among critical opinion.
In 1898 Elgar had written to his friend August Jaeger at Novello’s publishers with the notion of writing a symphony on the subject of the national hero General Gordon, but the Enigma Variations intervened. In October 1907 he finally set to work in earnest on his First Symphony. The symphony was completed on 20th September 1908 and Hans Richter gave the first performance in Manchester on 3rd December 1908. The symphony was dedicated “To Hans Richter, Mus. Doc., true artist and true friend.”
At the end of 1932, John Barbirolli accepted an invitation from the Scottish Orchestra to become their conductor. He had never had his ’own’ symphony orchestra, and jumped at the chance. Among the works he conducted in that first season was Elgar’s First. It was his first performance of the work: he would continue to conduct it for the rest of his life.
Elgar revealed little about the meaning of the Symphony, but in November 1908 he wrote: “As to the ‘intention’: I have no tangible poetic or other basis: I feel that unless a man sets out to depict or illustrate some definite thing, all music ….. must be a reflex, or picture, or elucidation of his own life or, at the least, the music is necessarily coloured by the life ….. I have had a wide experience of life but ….. as to the phases of pride, despair, anger, peace & the thousand & one things that occur between the first page & the last, I prefer the listener to draw what he can from the sounds he hears.” On another occasion he wrote: “I am really alone in this music!” Elgar himself felt that it contained “a massive hope for the future.” Its blend of dignity and sorrow make the symphony a deeply personal utterance. Arthur Nikisch, conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and one of the greatest conductors of the day wrote: “I consider Elgar’s symphony a masterpiece of the first order, and one that will soon be ranked on the same basis with the great symphonic models – Beethoven and Brahms.”
Barbirolli’s first opportunity to conduct Elgar’s Second Symphony came unexpectedly. Sir Thomas Beecham was scheduled to conduct the Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra on 12th December 1927 in the Queen’s Hall but had to abandon the concert following a fall. The directors of the LSO decided to “give young John a chance.” The trouble was, young John had never even seen the score. He had a weekend to learn it. The orchestra leader was W.H. “Billy” Reed, a close friend of Elgar who had performed countless times under the composer’s baton. At the rehearsal, it became clear to the orchestra that Barbirolli was up to his task, and he won Reed’s support. “John already knows what he wants to do, Elgar might even like it!”
The concert won enthusiastic applause. It was also a breakthrough for the young conductor, for in the audience was Fred Gaisberg, head of HMV, who came up to Barbirolli as he left the platform. “My name is Gaisberg. I am from HMV. Don’t sign any contract. I’ll see you in the morning.” (Apart from seven years with Pye Records, Barbirolli would remain faithful to HMV/EMI for the rest of his life.) As for what the Symphony meant to him, he once said: “I can never reach the end of it without shedding a tear or two …..There is a nostalgic feeling in this music, as of the end of an era. It is a full close. It tells of a way of living that is no more. A sublime piece of music. It is part of my heritage and my life.”
The composer gave some hints as to what lay behind the notes. At the head of the score of the Second Symphony, Elgar wrote a quotation from Shelley: “Rarely, rarely comest thou, / Spirit of Delight!” During the composition of the slow movement, he wrote to a friend with another Shelley quotation: “I do but hide / Under these notes, like embers, every spark / Of that which has consumed me.” Rehearsing the third movement, he told the orchestra; “I want you to imagine that my music represents a man in a high fever. Some of you may know that dreadful beating that goes on in the brain – it seems to drive out every coherent thought. Percussion, you must give me all you are worth!” The audience at the first performance were puzzled by the Symphony; it was not what they had expected. Elgar turned to W.H. Reed who was leading the London Symphony Orchestra and said, “What is the matter with them, Billy? They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.” Elgar sensed that he was losing his audience.
The years of triumph, which had produced a succession of masterpieces such as The Dream of Gerontius, the two symphonies and the violin concerto would not last. The First World War left Elgar, already prone to depression, totally disillusioned as an artist. In 1918 and 1919 he produced only two, admittedly substantial, chamber works and, finally the Cello Concerto. The Concerto was first performed at Queen’s Hall, London, on 26th October. The soloist was Felix Salmond, the orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra, and the composer conducted.
The omens were not good. The remainder of the concert was to be conducted by Albert Coates, an ardent Russophile, who would conduct Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Borodin’s Second Symphony. At the rehearsal, Coates took an hour more of the available time than had been agreed and Elgar, already apprehensive, was ready to walk out. Salmond persuaded him to stay, but the concert performance was hopelessly under-rehearsed. The most powerful critic of the day, Ernest Newman wrote that the London Symphony Orchestra had made “a lamentable exhibition of itself”.
Sitting at the back desk of the orchestral cellists on that occasion was John Barbirolli (it was not the only occasion when he would play under Elgar’s baton). The following month, Barbirolli was the soloist in the second performance of the Cello Concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Dan Godfrey. As a conductor, it became part of Barbirolli’s core repertoire at home and abroad. He conducted it with the Berlin Philharmonic, coaching the orchestra’s principal cellist, Ottomar Borowitzky in the solo part. On tour with the (much-improved) London Symphony Orchestra in Moscow, he introduced it to the Russian audience along with a new young British cellist, Jacqueline Du Pré.
An air of melancholy hangs over much of the concerto’s four movements. A strong introductory flourish by the soloist dies away and a wistful, meandering theme appears in the lower strings. There is a contrasting middle section before the introductory theme reappears, only to fade away after a climax. The scherzo has a Mendelssohnian fleetness and magic, yet the feeling of wistfulness is never fully dispelled. The slow third movement is a lament and utterly Elgarian in its expression of loss. In the finale, there are successive attempts at youthful vigour and swagger, but they come to nought. The composer looks back over his shoulder, as it were, to the theme from the slow movement before the book is slammed shut.
For all that his great works reveal Elgar as a complex man of private passions and griefs, his public persona was that of a bluff country gentleman who much preferred to go to the races than bother with music. Elgar came to be regarded as the minstrel of Empire, a curiosity of a bygone age, something ‘left over from the last reign’. Elgar loved his country and was not ashamed of his patriotism. It is this healthy, ebullient, out-of-doors Elgar that we see in the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches.
Little needs to be said about No.1, for its central ‘trio’ tune has become something of a unofficial National Anthem. Many Elgarians regard No.4 as the finest of the set, and it certainly embodies Elgar’s most noble feelings. The other three, less frequently performed nowadays, have their individual character.
On 1st June 1972, a memorial tablet to Elgar was unveiled at Westminster Abbey. Conducting the orchestra (comprising the cream of British musicians) was composer Sir Arthur Bliss, Elgar’s successor as Master of The Queen’s Musick. (The occasion is one of the present writer’s most precious memories.) Bliss had already made this recording of the Marches for Decca; it is regarded by many critics as the recording which most authentically embody the Elgarian spirit.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe