Elgar: Symphony No. 2

Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op. 63

1.      Allegro vivace e nobilimente
2.      Larghetto
3.      Rondo
4.      Moderato e maestoso

Duration: 20'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO played: 2010

Elgar's public persona was assiduously cultivated: the tweeds and moustache of a country Tory, a close friend of the king and a man who moved in the highest circles.  He was so successful in playing this role that to this day this image is the single greatest obstacle to understanding his music.

Behind the façade was another Elgar: a provincial lower-class Catholic (which was the worse in Victorian England is a matter for debate) who had to work hard to escape his background and become the composer who was acclaimed by Richard Strauss as “the first English Progessive.”   Despite his journey from Worcestershire to the heart of the nation, Elgar retained throughout his life a strong sense of himself as an outsider, and with the passing of time it is this side of his personality that now speaks more vividly than the Imperial cliché of old.

He was a man of private passion, whose life was defined by women.  His youthful love Helen Weaver, whom he intended to marry, emigrated to New Zealand.  This left Elgar with emotional scars that never really healed.  He eventually married Alice Roberts, who attracted disapproval in marrying considerably below her station, and whose conviction in and ambition for her husband's greatness was what made him.  As well as these two formative influences, Elgar had the habit throughout his life of becoming infatuated with a succession of younger women.  Alice tolerated these crushes probably because, as far as we know, they rarely went very far and she felt that they fuelled his creativity.   And yet his friend Rosa Burley was able to declare in her memoirs that Elgar was “one of the most repressed people it is possible to imagine.”

The greatest of Elgar's infatuations was with Alice Stuart-Wortley,  daughter of the painter John Millais and wife of an MP, to whom Elgar was introduced in 1902.  They struck up an immediate friendship and exchanged letters of extraordinary intimacy until Elgar’s death.  To distinguish her from the other Alice in his life, Elgar gave her the nickname “Windflower.”  Her part as his muse to the three great works he produced  in 1909-12 is reflected in a letter that he wrote to her: “I have written out my soul in the  [violin] concerto, Symphony No. 2 and the Ode [The Music Makers] and you know it ... in these three works I have shewn myself.”

The Second Symphony was largely composed in 1909-1910, and dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII.  The dedication is misleading, however.  Elgar surely felt the death of the king keenly, as would have most men of the time, even if they did not know him personally as Elgar did.  However,  the roots of the symphony go back much further.  The first sketches for the second movement date from 1903, shortly after the death of a close friend, and the very end of the symphony weaves in an idea that he had written in childhood.  The two lines of Shelley that head the score indicate a much more personal theme than the public mourning of a monarch.  The first stanza of the poem is worth quoting in full:

Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
'Tis since thou art fled away.

Elgar made some revealing notes on the symphony for the reference of the writer of programme notes for the première. Of the Shelley quotation he states, “To get near the mood of the Symphony the whole of Shelley's poem may be read, but the music does not illustrate the whole of the poem, neither does the poem entirely elucidate the music.”  He continues, “The spirit of the whole work is intended to be high & pure joy: there are retrospective passages of sadness, but the whole of the sorrow is smoothed out & ennobled in the last movement, which ends in calm &, I hope & intend, elevated mood.”

Note that he stops short of suggesting that the sorrow is banished.  This remark, like the symphony itself, has a superficial straightforwardness that on closer inspection reveals deep ambiguity.  For all its surface boisterousness, the “Spirit of Delight” theme that launches the symphony and permeates the entire work is filled with suggestions of a darker undertow.  This comes to the fore in the second movement, which was at its first performance widely assumed to be a funeral march for the king. Elgar states: “N.B. private. The second movement formed part of the original scheme – before the death of King Edward; – it is elegiac but has nothing to do with any funeral march & is a 'reflection' suggested by the poem.”  Some of the material for this movement has its roots in an abandoned sequel to his overture Cockaigne, which was to be subtitled “City of Dreadful Night.”  The third movement is extraordinary: a complex riot of cross-rhythms that manages to be simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, and reminds us that this symphony is contemporary with Mahler's last works. 

The finale begins in a curiously placid mood, before a livelier theme interjects: “Hans himself!” writes Elgar on the sketch for this tune.  “Hans” was his friend and champion Hans Richter, who had conducted the première of the First Symphony.  Anyone expecting a triumphant conclusion will be disappointed: elevated and noble they may be, but the final bars are also punctuated by a painful sense of loss and regret, as bittersweet an ending as could be imagined.

 Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle


Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
'Tis since thou art fled away.
How shall ever one like me
Win thee back again?
With the joyous and the free
Thou wilt scoff at pain.
Spirit false! thou hast forgot
All but those who need thee not.
As a lizard with the shade
Of a trembling leaf,
Thou with sorrow art dismayed;
Even the sighs of grief
Reproach thee, that thou art not near,
And reproach thou wilt not hear.
Let me set my mournful ditty
To a merry measure;
Thou wilt never come for pity,
Thou wilt come for pleasure;
Pity then will cut away
Those cruel wings, and thou wilt stay.
I love all that thou lovest,
Spirit of Delight!
The fresh Earth in new leaves dressed,
And the starry night;
Autumn evening, and the morn
When the golden mists are born.
I love snow, and all the forms
Of the radiant frost;
I love waves, and winds, and storms,
Everything almost
Which is Nature's, and may be
Untainted by man's misery.
I love tranquil solitude,
And such society
As is quiet, wise, and good;
Between thee and me
What difference? but thou dost possess
The things I seek, not love them less.
I love Love -- though he has wings,
And like light can flee,
But above all other things,
Spirit, I love thee --
Thou art love and life! Oh, come,
Make once more my heart thy home.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

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