Symphony Study No. 38/118 | Elgar No. 2 | Sinopoli | Philharmonia

by Glenn on February 28, 2016

Elgar: Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 63
first performance: 24 May 1911, Queen’s Hall Orchestra
conducted by the composer

I heard Elgar’s Symphony No. 2 live years ago. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed it in April 1998 with (now Sir) Mark Elder guest conducting. I don’t remember much of the music. I know it didn’t grab me the way Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 did when I heard it for the first time.

What I do remember is the entertaining pre-concert talk given by one of the trombonists. He said that in the brass section, many of the symphonies they played had been named. (One got the sense that the names weren’t necessarily reverent and he didn’t say who had done the naming. He might not have known or might have needed some plausible deniability.) He told us that Elgar’s Second Symphony was titled, “The Meanderthal,” which more than insouciance or irreverence is surprisingly insightful.

I’ve avoided listening to this symphony again since and I’m pretty sure it’s only because it’s on Steinberg’s list that I did last night.

I wonder if this symphony will ever grow on me. It’s Elgar, so I want to love it, but the Second doesn’t work on me the way his First does. Elgar’s First is so moving, though I think Steinberg is right when he says that it “ends in ambiguity.” The finale is not a Pomp and Circumstance March. But if we can argue about how triumphant the end of Elgar’s First is, there’s no disagreement that the end of his Second is brooding at best.

There are some bright moments. There’s a little figure I enjoyed that you hear from time to time in the second movement Larghetto. But it’s such a short motif. And the whole work seems to be made up of short motifs, which for me is the central problem of this work (or at least what I at this point consider to be a problem). Elgar’s First symphony has such long lines and is so masterfully unified that perhaps the title announced by the trombonist for his Second is pretty accurate.

Steinberg notes,

“Elgar dedicated the work ‘to the Memory of His Late Majesty King Edward VII,’ who had died on 6 May 1910. He appended the following note, dated 16 March 1911: ‘This Symphony designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute, bears its present dedication with the gracious approval of His Majesty the King [George V].’”

Steinberg mentions the line of poetry that Elgar included at the end, which his publisher moved to the beginning. It’s by Shelley:

“Rarely, rarely comest thou,
…..Spirit of Delight!”

Steinberg adds, “But devoted poetry reader that he was, he knew not just those famous lines but all of Shelley’s Invocation. It ends:

‘But above all other things,
…..Spirit, I love thee—
Thou art love and life! Oh, come,
Make once more my heart thy home.'”

I listened to a recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon | March 1987 | London, Walthamstow Town Hall). It’s on a two CD set, which includes Elgar’s First, which I listened to the other night.

Some lessons learned:

1. We don’t love works of art equally. Our responses to various works of art, even by one artist that we enjoy, will vary.

2. We can’t approach works of art similarly. Elgar’s Second has a different aesthetic which guided  the creation and factors in to the listening.

3. We can’t be too dismissive. Sometimes our first impression of a work of art will last, but other times it takes a while for a work of art to get under our skin or for us even to understand or appreciate it and we realize that we weren’t ready for that work.