Introduction and Allegro, op. 47

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            It would surely be no presumption that perhaps the most common image of Sir Edward Elgar is the walrus-mustachioed, imperious figure who—like the similar picture of Lord Kitchener on the WW I recruiting posters—represents all that is Edwardian England.  In the popular imagination he might be the embodiment of Imperial Britain, the empire on which the sun never set, and more specifically, the most “English” of English composers.  This picture is indelibly enhanced by every American’s encounter, at any graduation worth the name, with Elgar’s most famous composition, Pomp and Circumstance (actually, the trio of the first of five marches by that name).  Well, it’s simply not true—or at least, a gross exaggeration.  While Elgar was Britain’s most influential composer during roughly the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the truth of the matter is much more nuanced and complex.  Elgar, the man, was not the self-confident, master of his popular image, rather he was a complex, private person, always striving for acceptance, and definitely not an unthinking jingoistic patriot.

            He was born in humble circumstances; his father was a rural piano tuner and shopkeeper, but the family was musical and appreciative of literature.  He learned the piano early on, and did study violin, but not much.  He was largely self taught, but advanced sufficiently to earn a modest living playing violin in local orchestras, accompanying singers, and conducting small orchestras such as that of the local “lunatic asylum.”   He never took a lesson in musical composition.  He was assiduous in his self-studies, taking every opportunity to improve himself—reading everything, traveling to hear distinguished conductors and great music.  His zeal for personal improvement was immense.   He more or less worked his way up the composers’ ladder by writing choral music for local and regional groups, taking time when possible to go to Europe to broaden his exposure to the canon of German and French composers.   And therefore, the sources of his musical style were not primarily English at all, rather were the mainstream of German compositional procedures, with a healthy dose of French mastery of orchestration.   As for English folksong tradition as inspiration and source for a contemporary idiom (like his countrymen, Vaughan Williams and Holst), he was contemptuous.

            While he had thitherto busied himself with years of composing, it seemed to many that he had almost come out of nowhere in 1899 with what is arguably his masterpiece, the so-called Enigma Variations for orchestra.  After that, things went splendidly for him; he garnered solid financial security, received a knighthood, and secured a position as the most respected English composer since the seventeenth-century Henry Purcell.  The world of Edwardian and Georgian England before WWI was his oyster.   Compositions flowed during the next two decades, but of those, his greatest works were his magnificent vocal/orchestral work, The Dream of Gerontius, two symphonies, a violin concerto, and finally, the cello concerto.

            The genesis of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro begins in 1904, with the founding of the London Symphony Orchestra.  Its basis was revolutionary, established as a kind of cooperative, with the players running the show—it’s still that way.  It undertook a grand tour of Britain in 1905, with Elgar conducting, and the story is that he composed the Introduction and Allegro for the orchestra’s string section—whether to show them off, or to encourage their improvement is not quite established.  It is true that he had pursued some sketches for such a work as early as 1901—well before the orchestra’s founding—but then, Elgar was famous (or perhaps notorious) for using previously composed scraps of musical ideas hither and thither whenever he needed them.  In any case, the result was a masterpiece.

            Its fundamental conception is novel, conceived as a romantic reincarnation of a standard orchestra genre of the late 17th and early 18th centuries:  the concerto grosso.   The orchestra forces in a concerto grosso are divided between a solo string quartet and a larger reinforcing string group—with the resultant interplay of musical themes and dynamics between the two groups providing much of the interest.  In the case of the Elgar work, the concept is expanded somewhat, with solos played from time to time by players in the larger group, as well.  That’s just one of the points of interest in the work, though.  It is a composition of considerable formal complexity and melodic weft.  Elgar is at the height of his technical skills, and his prowess at deftly weaving the main ideas together, while moving through an integrated development of them, is impressive.  

            A “roadmap” for listening is a bit more problematic here than in most compositions, but a few landmarks will help.  The Introduction opens right away with one of its three main themes, a vigorous “choppy” affair, soon followed by the second important idea, which is easily identified by its pleasant optimism.   And shortly, a winsome lyrical melody is heard, played by the solo viola.  Elgar recounted that it was inspired by hearing a distant voice singing during a visit that he had made to Wales.  These three elements, heard in fairly quick succession, are the foundation materials for the work, and in kaleidoscopic fashion smoothly sail in and out of the texture.  This leads to several loud, separated chords, followed by a bit of the “folksong,” and a more extended exploration of the happy second idea—and the Introduction closes and melds into the Allegro.

            It’s easy to spot the latter, as a new idea comes forth for the occasion, consisting of agitated repeated notes in the solo quartet.  So, now, Elgar works through three of the ideas (leaving out the “folksong” for awhile).  The centerpiece of the movement ultimately is arrived at:  an impressive, complicated fugue, whose zippy beginning is easy to pick out.   After an intense exploration of this cascading, interplay of multiple, free counterpoint, the whole affair begins to gradually slow down and it peters out with bits of the agitated notes of the beginning.  The last section is an imaginative, varied review of our familiar three ideas heard at the beginning of the Introduction, the climax of which is the “folksong” first heard in the solo viola, now sung out by the whole ensemble.  A quick scamper to the end follows quickly.

            For those not familiar with Elgar’s great choral works, and who know him primarily through Pomp and Circumstance and the “Enigma” Variations, nothing can better demonstrate the depth of mastery and remarkable diversity of his musical mind than this significant composition. 

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan