Spirit of delight, where are you? I’ve found you.

Yesterday night – back at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg for the new season. © Charles Thibo

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!

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2 thoughts on “Spirit of delight, where are you? I’ve found you.”

  1. Katia has just drawn my attention to this post. Sorry your first experience of Elgar’s E Flat Symphony (his second) was slightly disappointing. This is a work I have known for more than fifty years and love dearly – almost as much as his first symphony, in A Flat, which is probably my favourite piece of music of all time. Yes, it is a very personal work: the second movement is a funeral elegy for King Edward VII, whom Elgar knew personally, and the brutal contrasts in the work, to which you refer, may be a reflection of the fact that Elgar suffered from bipolar disorder. You really should give it another chance. There are many wonderful recordings, including those by Previn, Barbirolli, Solti and Barenboim (who I believe has recorded it twice).

    1. Actually, I am listening to Elgar’s second symphony right now! I am just through that rather long first movement draws and I am beginning to understand… and to appreciate. My recording is the one by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davies. It will take a few more times listening to it and then will add a post scriptum post! 🙂

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