Looking for a fantastic, but relatively unknown piece to perform with your orchestra? Consider Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major.
Rarely heard in the United States, I recently had the privilege of enjoying this underappreciated masterpiece under the baton of Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Symphony No. 1 is one of two symphonies written by British composer Elgar and was an unqualified success when it premiered in England in 1908. As the story goes, at the first performance, the audience burst into applause at the end of the gorgeous 2nd movement and insisted conductor Hans Richter take a bow before continuing on. The symphony was dedicated to Richter, who called it “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer.”
“Symphony No. 1 is one of two symphonies written by British composer Elgar. The symphony was dedicated to Richter, who called it “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer. ”
It is an extraordinary piece especially considering it had no libretto but rather focuses on the wide experience of human life and hope for the future.
The theme is serene and confident and is supported by a noble walking bass line. Noblimente is the theme which Elgar insists and Zander suggested it would have been the perfect opening music for Downton Abbey in which case we’d all be whistling it today. The third time the theme is presented it is accompanied by an enormously rich and full Ab major background. It gave me goose bumps. It is hard to manipulate the theme or develop it in a different way, so Elgar decided to create a stark contrast of the tritone difference of D minor. He had recently taken a bet with a colleague that he could write a symphony in two keys—and that, he did.
The tritone difference speaks to the torment and fear that Elgar often experienced. He was a Roman Catholic living in a Protestant country and raised by a working class father – a piano tuner. Elgar felt tormented and ostracized all his life. Perhaps because of this he was kind to each part of the orchestra and peppers the theme throughout the ensemble. Even the “backdesk” players get a piece. Elgar had an early affinity for music and, at eight years old, tried to write what the reeds were saying down by the river. He is comparable to the likes of Mahler.
“The tritone difference speaks to the torment and fear that Elgar often experienced. Elgar felt tormented and ostracized all his life, and perhaps because of this, he was kind to each part of the orchestraand peppers the theme throughout the ensemble. ”
Movement II—Allegro Molto—was said to be the rambunctious movement full of pomp—a drinking music. The pizzicato is spellbinding.
Movement III—the Adagio— is slow and beautiful. It reflects the inner soul and is sublime and profound. It is worthy of Beethoven who happens to be Elgar’s god. Zander asked us to open your emotional pores to its beauty.
The last movement in D minor is wild. It is a constant struggle between Ab and D and the theme is transformed into a march. It is powerful and colossal and the 2 harps counter the theme in the trombones. There is an "OMG" moment full of hell and high-water as the trumpets play mezzo forte. This theme represents our hopes for a noble world even as we question whether such a world can exist. Zander says it represents our hopes for a better world and our triumph.
Rather than building to a triumphant conclusion, however, the symphony has a highly ambiguous ending. Tentative, rejecting and skeptical, but somehow in love.
It is 50 minutes of great music, perfect for an orchestra brave enough to pull it off!
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