Last night at Davies Symphony Hall was truly exciting for me, primarily because it was my first (and long overdue) opportunity to hear Edward Elgar's Opus 47, an introduction and allegro movement for a full string ensemble and a string quartet of soloists, in a "live" performance. In my studies of music, I had only one professor who ever felt that Elgar was worth mentioning. That was my orchestration professor, who was never shy about his British roots and insisted that Opus 47 be studied thoroughly to appreciate the art of composing for a string ensemble. I remember getting on his bad side when I showed up in class one day with the score of Krzysztof Penderecki's threnody for 52 individual string instruments, dedicated "To the Victims of Hiroshima," and suggested that this deserved as much attention as the Elgar score! At the time I was too occupied with a historical path that seemed to lead from Richard Wagner to Gustav Mahler to Arnold Schoenberg to Anton Webern and then to Penderecki, which seemed to have no place for the likes of Elgar.
Then one day I happened to hear Elgar's first symphony on the radio. I suddenly discovered that, while Elgar may not have had a place on that path, listening to Mahler could inform the serious listener when it came to listening to Elgar. I suspect the connection formed because my first serious Mahler experience had been the old Hermann Scherchen Westminster recording of his fifth symphony, which begins with a funeral march; and it took only a minor leap of the imagination to hear the opening Andante of the Elgar symphony as yet another funeral march. Now, to set the historical record straight, the Mahler fifth was completed in 1902. Elgar's first was completed in 1908, and I have yet to find any hard evidence of Elgar having been aware of Mahler's music. However, the Mahler fifth received its first performance in England at Queen's Hall in London under Henry Wood on October 21, 1903; and, while Elgar may not have been there for the occasion, he is likely to have seen reviews of it. There is thus some possibility that Mahler planted the idea of a funeral march in a symphony in Elgar's consciousness, even if the act was an indirect one.
The funereal intentions of Elgar's opening have been addressed on the Wikipedia page for his first symphony. By way of disclaimer, I should observe that this page has been marked as lacking reliable references. Nevertheless, the proposition is advanced as a speculative one:
While Elgar never explicitly stated a programme for the symphony, it has been suggested that the work was inspired by the death of General Charles George Gordon: its "Eroica" character parallels the similar Beethoven symphony which was, according to the story, originally dedicated to Napoleon.
Hugh Hudson selected this music for the opening scene of his 1984 film, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes; and my wife-to-be and I both reacted the same way. This was music for the setting of the sun on the British Empire, which would be entirely consistent with the death of Gordon Pasha.
All this is a roundabout way of explaining that, on my first exposure to the Elgar symphony, I was hooked by the very first measure, almost exactly the same way I had been hooked by the Mahler fifth. From there it became a matter of following him on the journey through all four movements of the symphony, leaving me stunned with a reaction that Michael Tilson Thomas would later capture in this thoughts about Alban Berg:
I must hear that again.
After that my experiences with Elgar became one revelation after another, leading eventually to my eager acquisition of all three volumes of the EMI Elgar Edition of all the electrical recordings that Elgar made. (I am not sure how many of the acoustic recordings have been released; but the notes for the first EMI volume include a wonderful photograph on an acoustic recording session on January 21, 1914.)
Even if Elgar's connection to Mahler is little more than speculative, I find it slightly disconcerting that I have not yet had an opportunity to hear his first symphony in Davies and that the Opus 47 that I heard last night had only been performed once before in December of 1930. Elgar deserves a more prominent place in the "working vocabulary" of any serious listener. Ironically, I see that this is the second time I have explored these thoughts about him on this blog (this time with a bit more historical detail). The first time was almost a year ago, but the opportunities to hear that music in concert have not improved very much since then. So it goes.