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August 25, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 7): Elgar

England and America have everything in common, Oscar Wilde observed, except the language. He could have excepted the music, too, at least the classical stuff. I think we hear way too little music by British composers, old and new, in our concert halls.

I've already lobbied in this humble blog for a dash of Finzi, and now I'd like to make a pitch for Elgar. Sure, we get the occasional (and ever-welcome) "Enigma" Variations. And the sublime concertos receive attention periodically. But that still leaves too much of Elgar's music absent from local programs.

The Baltimore Symphony did give us the Symphony No. 1 some years ago (James Judd led the authoritative performance), but I'd say it's high time for the majestic No. 2. If that seems too risky, box office-wise (for reasons that escape me, some folks find Elgar's symphonies boring), what on earth is preventing the programming of something as bright, brilliant and just plain entertaining as the "Cockaigne" Overture?

Then there's the ultimate in Elgar euphoria --

"The Dream of Gerontius." No, I don't really expect the BSO to tackle this heady oratorio anytime soon, but I can't abandon The Dream of Tim -- I picture myself luxuriating at Meyerhoff Hall someday in this combination of high theological discourse and noble music. (Given Baltimore's historic relation to Catholicism, I would think there'd be great local interest in a work based on a poem by Cardinal Newman about a journey to heaven. Of course, like all great art, the oratorio canm speak to listeners of any -- or no -- faith.)

I hope Elgar fans out there will let me know what other works of his we should be hearing. For those fans, and for anyone who has yet to fall under the composer's spell, I offer these excerpts from the Second Symphony, "Cockaigne" and "Gerontius":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:31 AM | | Comments (5)


The NSO played Elgar's 2nd a few years ago; the conductor was... Zinman!

One of my favorite Elgar works is the overture In the South (Alassio), especially in Constantin Silvestri's magnificent reading, still the best after all these years (and what a great and underrated conductor Silvestri is!)

Thanks for mentioning 'In the South,' another gem. TIM

I would also love to hear more
Elgar, Tim, but I think he has showed up in local programming off and on (more than, for instance, the equally deserving Ives and Scriabin, to name two underrepresented composers)

Zinman's Second with the NSO was great, and he did program Elgar when he music director of the BSO, including the Second as well as a stunning Gerontius in the early 90's Also in recent years, the NSO has done the First (an impressive performance with Roger Norrington) and the reconstructed Third with Slatkin.

By the way, Muti is scheduled to conduct In the South with the NYPO this November at the Kennedy Center.

Chevy Chase, MD.

Ah, yes, the Zinman years, which, alas, I missed. Still, in my 9 years here, not nearly enough Elgar to satisfy me -- especially when the same items by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and others keeping being repeated. So I'm really looking forward to the Muti concert. By the way, I couldn't agree more about Ives and Scriabin needing greater attention here. TIM

Tim - I miss many things about the Zinman years, but his Elgar isn't one of them! (His Brahms and Mahler, on the other hand ...).

I suggest getting your "Gerontius" fix from a live recording led by Barbirolli and featuring the incomparable Jon Vickers. Or a recent Colin Davis effort on LSO. (Active content is blocked here so I can't see which performance you excerpted.)

Personally, I can never hear the Cello Concerto too often - and Jacqueline DuPre's first recording is arguably one of the all-time great recordings of ANYTHING.

And I'm probably in a minority, but I have adored his "Sea Pictures" ever since hearing it performed in a broadcast by Marilyn Horne. However, this season 'The MET Orchestra' has it planned with Stephanie Blythe, which could also be wonderful. In the meantime, Dame Janet Baker is a great interpreter of the cycle even if, to my ear, she lacks the vocal plushness of the ladies mentioned above.

Thanks, as always, for the comments. I'll try to find out what's wrong with the clip of 'Dream," which came from a concert in England (naturally). And I join you in admiring the "Sea Pictures," which I don't recall ever hearing live. I'd love to hear Blythe's performance. TIM

A compelling solution to Edward Elgar’s "Enigma Theme & Variations" has been discovered: "Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott" by Martin Luther.


Don't forget the Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, a work that I become more and more enamored of every time I hear it.

I haven't yet read the article noted by Robert Padgett claiming "Ein' feste Burg" as the solution to the Enigma, but I will. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that so assertively Protestant a hymn would be used by such a committed Catholic. I very much liked the suggestion about a decade ago that the theme derived from a Mozart symphony (No. 38), which Elgar had just heard before idly playing around with the figure that became the theme of the variations.

Thanks for the suggestion. I love that Elgar work as well, and would like to encounter it more often. As for the Enigma tune, I also wondered about the idea of Elgar using that particular hymn. Seems to me the divide between Catholic and Protestant sacred music was awfully strong for a long time. (I'm old enough -- damn it -- to recall when it was considered suspect among some Catholics to sing the most familiar tune of "Away in the Manger" in church at Christmastime because it was, erroneously, of course, attributed to Luther. And that was way past Elgar's day.) Still, I suppose he could have overcome any scruples given that he was composing a secular piece. One thing's for sure: that Enigma is a gift that keeps on giving.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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