British Majesty Programme Notes

Pomp, circumstance and the spirit of England come to life in our 54th Season Finale! Featuring music from coronations, weddings and jubilees – God Save the Queen – and all the royals!

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Symphony Series 6 :: British Majesty

William Walton (1902-1983) originally wrote his Crown Imperial march for the coronation of King Edward VIII of England in 1937. However, Edward abdicated in 1936 so he could marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Walton’s march was performed at a coronation ceremony later in 1937, but it was that of Edward’s younger brother King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II. Overt nationalism and an easily accessible style quickly made the piece one of the composer’s most popular works.

The piece opens with a bright, cheerful march featuring extended pedal points typical of the composer; the second section begins in a more reflective mood, but the hymn-like melody is soon transformed into a chorale of solemn grandeur. Walton returns to material from both sections before a short coda brings the piece to a triumphant close.

Although Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is now known as a national hero of Finland who forged a uniquely Finnish style of music, the 1904 premiere of his Violin Concerto in D Minor in Helsinki was not a success. Finished just before the performance, leaving very little time to rehearse, the concerto proved beyond the soloist’s skill. One year later a second premiere in Berlin, conducted by Richard Strauss, featured substantial revisions.

His only concerto merges two apparently irreconcilable traditions: the Romantic virtuosic concerto and the composer’s stark, concentrated, and orchestrally motivated musical language. In a surprisingly effective stylistic fusion, Sibelius showcases the violin’s capacity for both extreme virtuosity and melodic lyricism, while still remaining true to his own personal aesthetic by increasing the importance of the orchestra’s role in relation to the soloist.

The piece opens with a melancholy, folk-influenced melody suspended above a frosty expanse of muted strings; the clarinet echoes the soloist’s line as if from a distance. Lush, orchestration gives the movement its distinct ‘Sibelius’ flavour. In an innovative twist on the sonata form, Sibelius replaces the development section with an extended cadenza for the soloist. The recapitulation showcases fierce virtuosity in the violin part.

A lyrical Adagio, the second movement is a welcome respite from the stormy mood of the preceding movement. The tender, cantabile melody gains emotional drive from dissonant accompaniments, especially in the brass.

Aggressive and military in mood, the third movement is even more technically impressive than the previous two. The restless first theme, accompanied by a driving ostinato rhythm in the strings, is contrasted with a second, syncopated dance-like theme, which the soloist presents in a series of variations. (This theme has earned the affectionate nickname ‘a polonaise for polar bears’.) Again Sibelius punctuates the soloist’s unbridled virtuosity with moments of pure orchestral brilliance.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote his Enigma Variations as a collection of musical portraits; each of the fourteen variations on the original theme is meant to depict a specific character from Elgar’s inner circle of friends and family. However, in his own notes Elgar assures listeners that the piece can stand alone without any programmatic references. Premiered in 1899, the Enigma Variations quickly gained popularity around the world.

Elgar called his theme the ‘Enigma’, causing speculation about the possible presence of a hidden message. The theme’s melodic outline is quite unusual; wide leaps and rests break up the line and make the contour fairly disjunctive. Drawing on hints from Elgar’s writings, some believe the theme may be a counterpoint to an existing melody. Many solutions have been suggested, but none has ever indisputably solved the elusive Enigma.

The poignant Enigma theme is first presented in the violins, accompanied only by punctuating chords in the strings. The mood brightens momentarily as Elgar switches to a major, almost pastoral mode with a more flowing melody; then the main theme returns once more with fuller and more dramatic orchestration.

The first variation represents Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife, and is described by him as ‘romantic and delicate’. This variation clearly expresses Elgar’s feelings for his beloved wife; a short thematic fragment, only four notes long, reportedly represents a tune Elgar would whistle when he arrived home to greet his wife.

Hew David Stewart-Powell, an amateur pianist and friend of Elgar’s, is the subject of the second variation. Quick, running lines are meant to evoke the scales Stewart-Powell would invariably play before beginning a piece at the piano. Elgar humorously suggests the style of a Toccata with fast sixteenth-note passages, but – apparently – far too chromatic for his friend’s taste.

Third is a portrait of Richard Baxter Townshend, an Oxford don and author. The variation depicts an episode during which Townshend played an elderly man in an amateur play; Elgar suggests his friend’s acting prowess by having his low bass voice (the bassoon) occasionally pop up into a quavering soprano register (the flute).

The fourth and shortest variation paints a portrait of William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire. Elgar affectionately pokes fun at his friend, who apparently ‘expressed himself somewhat energetically’. The following variation depicts Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold. This variation leads directly into the next.

The subject of the sixth variation, Isabel Fitton, was a viola student of the composer. The entire variation is built on a motive introduced in the opening bar, based on an exercise to practice crossing the strings on the viola. In the seventh variation, Elgar affectionately mocks the enthusiastic but less than polished piano technique of his friend Arthur Troyte Griffith. The stormy mood may also refer to an episode involving Elgar and Griffith, during which the two were caught out in a thunderstorm and sought refuge in another friend’s house.

Winifred Norbury, the secretary for the Worcester Philharmonic Society, is the subject of the eighth variation. Partially a depiction of the gracious and elegant house in which Norbury lived, the movement also includes a ‘suggestion of a characteristic laugh’ in the oboe, clarinet, and flute.

The ninth variation (and the most beloved) is titled ‘Nimrod’, but is meant to portray Augustus J. Jaeger, the music editor at the publishing company Novello & Co. The name ‘Nimrod’ refers to a mighty hunter in the Bible (Jäger means hunter in German). The variation depicts a time when Elgar was severely depressed, and contemplated giving up composing; Jaeger encouraged him by reminding Elgar of the great Beethoven’s similar struggles, singing the theme from the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata.

Dora Penny’s characteristic stutter is affectionately depicted in the woodwind section in the tenth variation, which also features a lovely viola solo. In the eleventh variation, Elgar portrays George Robertson Sinclair, the organist at Hereford Cathedral. However, instead of musically depicting the organ, Elgar describes an incident involving Sinclair’s pet bulldog, Dan. After falling into a river, Dan paddles upstream and, returning to land, expresses his joy by barking enthusiastically.

An amateur cellist, Basil G. Nevinson often played chamber music with Elgar. The twelfth movement pays homage to his musical role by beginning and ending with a cello solo. The thirteenth variation is dedicated to an unnamed lady, who was on a sea voyage at the time of composition. The rolling sound of the drums is meant to depict the engines of a steam liner. Lady Mary Lygon of Madresfield Court, the sponsor of a local music festival, may be the intended lady, or Elgar’s former fiancée Helen Weaver, who after breaking with Elgar, sailed to New Zealand.

Elgar reserved the last variation for himself; the title ‘Edu’ is a nickname bestowed by his wife. Themes from earlier variations echo through the movement, including material from ‘Nimrod’ and the variation depicting the composer’s wife. Elgar refers to Jaeger and Caroline as ‘two great influences on the life and art of the composer’.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers