9th May 2021
The ‘Enigma Variations’ of 1899 heralded the arrival of Edward Elgar, a young English composer who would not only surpass his teachers and rivals, but would restore international acclaim to British music. He was the greatest native composer since Purcell.
He overcame prejudice against his humble background, and his own discomfort in society as, for twenty years, he composed symphonies, oratorios and concertos that rank among the major works of Twentieth Century Music.
However, the sonic assault of his ‘Cello Concerto’ of 1919 was to be his last masterpiece. Shortly after, his wife died and he withdrew from public life, convinced that his art was old-fashioned, in comparison to the Modernist compositions coming from over The Channel.
That Elgar could be a part of the establishment, yet also a ‘down to earth’, ‘man of the people’ is attested to in the following anecdote.
William Walton, as a young music student, met the elder composer, and was so overawed by being in the presence of so great a man, that he was unable to speak. Elgar immediately put him at ease, by asking him if he knew who had won that afternoon’s big horse race.
Walton was befriended and encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon and The Sitwells, and wrote a musical interpretation of Edith Sitwell’s ‘Facades’. There was a society performance where the music played while the poetess recited through a megaphone.
In November 1935, the year after Elgar’s death, Walton’s First Symphony was finally premiered, ‘finally’ as it was started in England in 1932 and was scheduled to make its first appearance the following year.
It is dedicated to Baroness Imma von Doernberg, a young widow the composer had met in 1929.
By 1931, The Composer and The Baroness were living together in Switzerland, though Walton later returned to England and began work on the symphony.
Work on it was interrupted as Walton returned to Switzerland to be with the Baroness who had fallen ill, and they continued their often tempestuous relationship.
Aside from these personal problems, Walton was also lacking inspiration and canvassed his friends’ opinions as how to finish the symphony.
The on-off relationship finally ended in 1934, when the Baroness left The Composer for a Hungarian Doctor.
The symphony is regarded as an important addition to the canon of British music. It begins very softly, as if arriving through an early morning, country mist, before erupting into moments of intense drama, and sensual beauty.
Walton was still a relative newcomer to the music scene, when his First Symphony was being composed, whereas Vaughan Williams was a ‘grand old man’ when he began composing his Sixth Symphony.
This remarkable composition has all the energy and iconoclastic disregard of a young composer, anxious to make his mark by flaunting all conventions.
Three movements run as one, the quiet moments being just as uncomfortable as the loud, with their sense of foreboding. Yet it is the fourth movement that sets the symphony apart and on which its reputation rests: the entire section is played pianissimo. An early critic wrote of the finale as,
“… devoid of all warmth and life, a hopeless wandering through a dead world … “.
The Composer denied it had anything to do with the battlefields of Europe, the death camps of Poland, the post-atomic cityscape of Hiroshima.
Adapting folk melodies of one’s own country is known as Nationalism in music. Hearing that Ralph Vaughan Williams was a ‘Nationalist’ composer, the Hamburg University offered him an honorary degree in 1938. After much debate, he decided to accept, using the occasion to send a letter stating,
“I am strongly opposed to the present government in Germany, especially with regards to its treatment of artists and scholars … and my first instinct is to refuse … “
Hitler banned the music of Vaughan Williams later that same year.