Monday, April 6, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “E” - EDWARD ELGAR, COMPOSER


Anybody who's graduated from an American school, college, university and probably kindergarten has marched into and out of the tune “Pomp and Circumstance”. If you were one of the unlucky bastards like me, you got to play the thing ad nauseam, at least three out of four of those years at whatever school where you matriculated. In thinking back, I think I played that booger eleventy-billion times, not counting the times I had to listen to it. I could play that in my sleep, much like Pachelbel's “Canon” which THIS guy hates, and I'm kinda with him on that. Play as many weddings as I have, and you'll understand. Since the movie “Ordinary People” every bride EVER wants it in her wedding, which I don't get, because “Ordinary People” is a movie, where everyone ends up dead or unhappy.


I once played this about eight times, because the bride had sixteen bridesmaids and they walked the length of a football field. Outdoors. By the ocean. We had no mics. I guess the fish were entertained

Anyway, back to Elgar. Not only is he responsible for “Pomp and Circumstance” – right here and now, let me just state that I am not going to write about Fucik's “Gladiator March” which we all know as the “Circus Tune” – but he was responsible for some damn fine writing, like his Cello Concerto, and his Symphonies. He was knighted for his compositions WHILE still alive; no mean feat in the King's Empire of the day. You usually had to be toes up, for that to occur. Born of humble means, he decided early on that he wanted to be a violinist, although he did not feel that his tone was good enough to allow him to be a soloist, despite his friends' protests to the contrary, he turned his hand to composing and was basically self-taught. He was also Roman-Catholic and this made him feel more of an outsider in Anglican, upper-crust England. The fact that he wrote excellent choral music and pieces like the “The Dream of Gerontius” based on a Roman-Catholic text that brought him to the notice of King Edward who appointed him Master of the King's Musick in 1924, helped to assuage his feelings somewhat.


Sir Edward William Elgar, OM, GCVO. That mustache alone was worth a knighthood; it's magnificent!

Earlier in his life, he had begun teaching a woman, Caroline Alice Roberts, who became his wife three years later. Their union was a happy one, and one evening, as he was plinking around on the piano, a melody he played caught the attention of his wife, who had a good ear and was a published poet. Edward began to write some variations on the melody in styles which reflected the characters of some of his friends and these improvisations, expanded and orchestrated became the “Enigma Variations”. The piece, as is, was revised after it's debut, with Elgar adding 96 bars at the end and adding an organ to it; it is mostly performed that way today. Elgar wanted to include glimpses of Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and Hubert Parry, two very close friends, but was unable to assimilate their musical styles without pastiche and so, he dropped the idea.

Unlike other “Theme and Variations”, the “Enigma Variations” is an apt title, for Elgar himself stated first publicly:
The Enigma I will not explain – it's 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes' but is not played. . . . So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas – eg Maeterlinck's L'Intruse and Les sept Princesses – the chief character is never on the stage.”

Well, that just clears it right up. So we never really have a theme, but we DO have an Enigma. At this point, I feel almost like Winston Churchill when he mentioned Russia; “. . . A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Now, THAT I can get behind; I love the Russians. Trying to figure them out pre-glasnost was like analyzing tea leaves.


"Nimrod" from "Enigma Variations", Sir Edward Elgar, Colin Davis conducting

Anyway, it's good to know that Elgar wrote some truly wonderful music besides the “Graduation March” as it's come to be known, or the “Pomp and Circumstance”. In doing the research for this article, I discovered that the “Nimrod” movement is treated in the U.K. much as Samuel Barber's “Adagio for Strings” is treated in the United States. It is used often times as a song of national mourning. Anyone who has seen the movie “Platoon” or seen any of the footage after 9/11, will hear the “Adagio”, but you truly must hear Nimrod. I present it here for your enjoyment. Then, go listen to the whole piece. It's a real delight. I had the pleasure of playing it in mid-February, under the baton of Mark Sforzini, and heard a recording of our concert at the Palladium, in St. Petersberg, Florida. The man is a wizard with a baton and he brings out the best in us! More on him, later!


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