The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.

One of most vibrant facets of nineteenth-century British life was the intense devotion to music displayed by large numbers of enthusiastic amateurs. But not all of these amateurs participated in the same sorts of ensembles, for, like society as a whole, musical institutions were shaped by the class distinctions that pervaded the Victorian and Edwardian eras. By dividing the composer's oeuvre into "the Elgar who writes for strings and the Elgar who writes for brass," the critic Frank Howes subtly alludes to the class differences implicit in two types of instrumental ensembles that were popular during this period.

In large part due to an increase in leisure time occasioned by industrial innovation, participation in brass bands emerged as a popular pastime among male working-class amateur instrumentalists, especially in Wales and the great industrial cities of northern England. In response to this phenomenon, there arose an elaborate system of competitive festivals, modeled on those for choruses. These festivals provided an institutional framework for brass bands that codified their instrumentation, expanded their repertory, and established traditions that have been preserved to the present day.

Compared to the relatively inexpensive brass instruments, the more costly strings were preferred by genteel performers, as is suggested by the membership of eighteenth-century amateur orchestral societies. A "violin craze" that took place in the late Victorian era resulted in the creation of string orchestras comprised predominantly of accomplished women from the middle and upper classes. The membership of the string orchestra founded by Lady Radnor — for whom Hubert Parry composed a vivacious suite — was drawn almost exclusively from the gentry. Such ensembles benefited from a large repertory of music suitable for amateur string players, from eighteenth-century concerti grossi to contemporary scores such as Parry's. British composers continued to write for both amateur and professional string orchestras throughout the twentieth century; indeed, for some commentators, the very sonority of the string orchestra is a potent signifier of musical Englishness.

Elgar displayed a remarkable flair when writing for brass instruments. An example of his expertise in this regard is the Civic Fanfare, written for the 1927 Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. Elgar, who had a great fondness for this fanfare, designed it to accompany the grand procession of civic officials as they entered the Cathedral for the festival's opening ceremony. On that occasion,the score was recorded using a newly outfitted mobile recording van, an early attempt at preserving a live performance outside the studio.

Granville Bantock's Symphonic Prelude: Prometheus Unbound was written as the test piece of the 1933 Brass Band National Championships held at the Crystal Palace. By basing his score on Shelley's poetic drama, Bantock provided an extra-musical element that was considered essential for the comprehension of the score by working-class bandsmen. (Shelley's verse was popular among working-class readers.) The defiant Prometheus appealed to Bantock, an avowed socialist, as well as to the more leftist bandsmen. With frequent unison passages, exotic harmonies, and contrasting dynamics, Prometheus Unbound presents a challenge to the finest bands, and remains a keystone of their literature.

Like Elgar's Civic Fanfare, Richard Strauss's Feierlicher Einzug der Ritter des Johanniterordens was a pièce d'occasion. Itwas written for performance by military bands during the ceremonies of the Order of St. John, a heraldic institution that was founded during the Middle Ages. Strauss and Elgar were warm colleagues who formed an enthusiastic mutual admiration society. The friendship between the two composers was cemented after Strauss offered a fulsome toast to Elgar during the 1902 Lower Rhine Festival:"I raise my glass to the welfare and success of the first English progressivist, Meister Edward Elgar, and of the young progressivist school of English composers."

John Ireland's Comedy Overture was commissioned as the test piece for the 1934 Brass Band Championships at the Crystal Palace. Two years later, Ireland revised the work for orchestra, renaming it A London Overture. According to the composer, the jaunty four-note motif that dominates the overture was inspired by a bus conductor's call of "Dilly, Piccadilly." The reflective opening music returns later in the piece, and near the end of this quiet section there is a passage that bears a striking resemblance to the climax of Percy Grainger's Irish Tune from County Derry.

Born in Australia, Percy Grainger spent most of his career in England and the United States. He enlisted in the United States Army band during World War I and began to compose the series of band pieces upon which his reputation largely rests today. In the 1920s Grainger developed an "elastic scoring technique" that allowed his music to be played on a combination of instruments available. One such "elastic" score is his Irish Tune from County Derry, based on the tune popularly known as "Londonderry Air." Elgar's Severn Suite, Op. 87, was commissioned in 1930 for the 25th anniversary of the National Brass Band Championship. Elgar dedicated the suite to his friend George Bernard Shaw, who wrote to praise Elgar after the premiere, but pointedly suggested that the foreign titles of the movements should be changed to English ones. When Elgar rescored the suite for orchestra two years later, he took Shaw's advice, providing new titles for the movements: "Worcester Castle," "Tournament," "Cathedral," "Commandery," and "Coda."

Commissioned to write an orchestral piece for the 1910 Three Choirs Festival held at Gloucester, Ralph Vaughan Williams was inspired by his love of Tudor music to compose the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for string orchestra. He selected a Phrygian psalm-tune that Tallis provided in 1567 for Archbishop Parker's Psalter. Following the practice of Tudor verse anthems, Vaughan Williams divides the strings into two antiphonal choirs, with the string quartet representing vocal soloists. This arrangement enabled him to exploit the sonic potential provided by the cathedral's soaring Norman vaults. The Tallis Fantasia was one of the few purely orchestral works premiered within one of the Three Choirs Festival cathedrals before the First World War. On this occasion, Vaughan Williams's piece preceded the first performance in Gloucester Cathedral of Elgar's Roman Catholic oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, which had hitherto been banned by the cathedral's Anglican clergy. Elgar's Serenade in E Minor, Op. 20, was first performed by the composer's Worcester Ladies Orchestra. As one of the players remarked wryly, "He is always writing these things and trying them out on us." The music may be reminiscent at times of Elgar's salon music, such as Salut d'amour, but the structure that underpins the fetching exterior reveals a vital musical mind, especially in the elegantly designed third movement, where an extended reprise of the major key section of the first movement leads to the poetic coda, thus resolving conclusively the tension between minor and major established at the beginning.

Gustav Holst composed his Fugal Concerto while en route to the United States for an appearance at the May Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Members of the Chicago Symphony presented the impromptu private premiere held in the President's House of the University of Michigan. Scored for flute, oboe, and strings, the first movement consists of a dialogue between the soloists,while the flowing lines of the second movement testify to Holst's deep love of Bach. The angular rhythms of the last movement introduce a gravity that is dispelled quickly by the witty interweaving of the British folk tune "If All the World Were Paper" into the texture.

Written for the newly-formed London Symphony Orchestra, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47, is scored for a string quartet that is contrasted with the full string ensemble in the manner of a Baroque concerto grosso. Elgar described the development as "no working-out part, but a devil of a fugue instead." In the Introduction, Elgar assigns the solo viola a theme that he described as a "Welsh Tune," a distant snatch of melody heard on a visit to Cardiganshire. The "Welsh Tune" functions as a poignant refrain that is always only half-remembered, for this melody is invariably interrupted by more energetic thematic material. Elgar's peroration hurtles towards a grand restatement of the "Welsh Tune," but the quizzical final pizzicato chord airily undercuts the triumphal music that precedes it. Elgar dedicated the Introduction and Allegro to an American admirer, Samuel Sanford (18491910), a professor of music at Yale University, who arranged for the English composer to receive an honorary degree there in 1905.


Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; pp. 38-41.

Last modified 23 August 2007