Loud, massive, ecstatic, modern. Calm, elegant, majestic, traditional. Frenzy and serenity. A self-portrait? An allegory of life? Between 1909 and 1911 the British composer Edward Elgar wrote an intriguing symphony in E flat major, Op. 63. I heard it yesterday night for the very first time at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg. I did not like it. It was not the orchestra’s fault. I will have to listen to it again. Soon. And then perhaps I will know what to think about it. I have an idea that there is something great hidden in this piece. But I didn’t find it yesterday.
Elgar usually knew what he was doing after all. He was an accomplished musician and a self-taught composer. In 1919, he composed a wonderful cello concert (Op. 85), that I have discussed in an earlier post. For this symphony, his second, the composer went back to sketches for a symphonic work honouring the British general Charles Gordon, known for his fight against the trade of African slaves. When Elgar was done, he had written a symphony in four movements with brutal contrasts. He dedicated it to King Edward II. It didn’t meet much success at its premiere. It met little enthusiasm from the audience yesterday evening.
Elgar qualified the symphony as one of his most personal works. The second movement takes up painful memories. On one of the pages of the score, he quotes the Romantic writer Percy Shelley: “Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight.” The poem speaks of the two extremes of joyous ecstasy and brooding despair. The symphony expresses these two extremes too, through its form and… through the music? I don’t know yet. It is an intriguing piece. I will have to listen to it again. Downloading now.
© Charles Thibo
Post scriptum added 24 March 2017
It’s been a while since my first-hand experience with Elgar’s Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63, and as I had promised, I have listened to this piece of music now several more times. I stand corrected: This is a fantastic piece!