Edward Elgar: Symphony No.1


Composed some way into his long musical career, the long awaited First Symphony from Edward Elgar did not disappoint. Premiered by the Hallé Orchestra under Hans Richter in December 1908, the First Symphony received great success in its first year. The symphony came at a time when larger-scale orchestral works from English composers were less common, and thus paved the way for some of Elgar’s contemporaries to write their own epic works (i.e Vaughan Williams’ ‘London Symphony’ and Holst’s The Planets). 

Elgar started to compose the First in 1907, with him already being established and praised for his large oratorios. Other than choral and solo works, Elgar’s archive of orchestral music was rather small, with miniature marches and small orchestral pieces being his main output. The First remains a favourite in concert halls, with Elgar’s incredible eye for detail in his orchestrations really shining through. 


The Music

Set into four movements, the symphony follows the tradition of four contrasting movements beginning and ending with sonata form structures. Elgar adds his own twists onto the structure throughout, but the main map of the symphony remains firmly in tradition.


Movement I

The slow introduction to the opening movement lays the foundation down for the main theme that runs throughout the whole symphony. The slower tempo and solemn atmosphere gives it a different tone in character in comparison to when it returns later in the symphony. Elgar’s rich writing for strings paired with the swells of brass sounds are a perfect mix to open the symphony. The noble theme is changed into a handful of lighter themes as the music races off in tempo. The sheer detail Elgar produces within the orchestra is nothing short of astounding. The seamless transitions run alongside complex combinations of instruments and solos to create a real feast for the ears. The first movement clocks in around 20 minutes in duration, giving Elgar plenty of time to develop the themes. 


Movement II

The chaotic scherzo theme opens with a scurrying pace that notes a change in character from the previous movement. Muted brass pierce through the fast and intricate string themes to create a dramatic string of voices. The music becomes lighter as the woodwind lead into the calming trio section. A welcome change to the scherzo music, the trio is led by a reflective theme, with Elgar utilising the harp. The manic opening theme returns in full power with added lower brass. The music slowly winds down during the coda before a sustained note leads us directly into the third movement with no break in the music.


Movement III

The expressive Adagio movement opens with a rich theme that, believe or not, is a very much slowed down version of the opening scherzo theme from movement II. In true Elgarian style, the orchestration marvellously complements the melody and the peaks and troughs written by Elgar are reflective, controlled and exquisite. Solos for the clarinet and cor anglais sing out during this movement, however the attention is always on the strings, who work hard to create an inward sound. A truly spellbinding movement of music, one does need not say much more. 


Movement IV

Similarly to the first movement, the finale begins with a slow introduction featuring the bass clarinet. The new march theme is then heard across a number of different instruments, starting with the bassoons. The gradual build up makes the switch into the Allegro section all the more effective. A bouncing dotted theme washes across the orchestra, with the strings leading on this new theme. The march theme, now disguised differently returns again and this time Elgar builds the music around it until an epic noble passage is heard across the orchestra. Elgar’s handling of the brass and percussion is particularly effective throughout this movement, with intertwining parts and beautiful solo passages singing out. 

The chaotic recapitulation brings once heard themes back into the fore. The exultant feeling within the orchestra is infectious and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. The coda slows the pace slightly as the noble theme returns for its final hurrah. Led by the brass as the strings and winds play fast scalic lines, the epic theme is fully realised. At last all of the themes begin to tie and make sense within the bigger picture of the symphony, which creates such brilliance at the end of this already magnificent symphony. The final chord sees the orchestra unite for the final time in the most noble of ways. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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