Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19
Elgar’s public image – the tweed suit, the extravagant moustache, the very image of the establishment country gent – was assiduously cultivated. He did this so successfully that the most popular idea of him today is still the gruff patriot, churning out tunes to wave flags by. The reality was rather different. To be born a Catholic in the provinces was the mark of an outsider in Victorian England. It took years of struggle and disappointment before he achieved his status as England’s foremost composer.
Froissart is an early work. It was commissioned by the Worcester Festival, but actually composed in London. Elgar had moved there with his new wife Alice in 1889 hoping to make his mark, but he struggled to make an impact. He had to commute back to Malvern to earn money teaching the violin, and the arrival of his first child put further strain on his finances. At one stage he was forced to pawn Alice’s pearls. Disillusioned, he retreated to Malvern in 1891, and would not return to London for a decade. Despite these misfortunes surrounding its composition, he retained affection for the piece in later years.
The overture is named for the medieval French writer Jean Froissart. Froissart worked as a merchant and a clerk before he became the court poet and historian to Philippa of Hainault, the consort of Edward III. His Chronicles, written as he travelled round England, Scotland, Wales, France, Flanders and Spain, are one of the most important contemporary records of the period leading up to the Hundred Years’ War.
Froissart’s value as a reliable historian is disputed, but what appealed to Victorian England was his depiction of the values of chivalry. Rather than any specific event, Elgar evokes the spirit of dashing nobility. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Keats that sums up the Romantic enthusiasm for this ideal: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high.”