Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Simon Rattle, and the curious incident of the missing symphony

2011 marks the one hundredth anniversary of Elgar’s symphony No. 2 in E♭ major, Op. 63. It was completed on 28 February 1911 and first performed two months later at the London Musical Festival by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra with the composer conducting.

Elgar (photo left) dedicated the symphony “to the memory of His late Majesty King Edward VII” and for many people it seems to depict the passing of the glorious era that preceded the futility of World War I. But that’s with hindsight.

The first line of the first stanza of Shelley’s poem Song (1821) – Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight! – is engraved in the score of the symphony. Elgar said that the poem is reflected in the mood of the symphony.

The symphony’s second (or slow) movement is a funeral march that, in the words of Michael Kennedy in his book Portrait of Elgar (Oxford University Press, 1968), is “unrivalled as a national elegy”. It contains one of the most exultant moments in all symphonic writing when the whole orchestra, led by soaring violins, seems to launch itself into musical freefall.

In the course of its romantic-tragic journey, Elgar’s music reaches creative and imaginative heights and depths, eventually reconciling itself to itself in a passage that Shelley’s contemporary, Wordsworth, might have recognized as “emotion reflected in tranquillity”.

There used to be much speculation about what inspired Elgar to write this symphony. Elgar told close friends that it represented everything that had happened to him from April 1909 to February 1911 – the people he was with and the places he visited.

During that time, Elgar paid a memorable visit to Venice as well as to Tintagel in Cornwall, legendary home of King Arthur’s Camelot. He also spent much time with his close friend Alice Stuart Wortley (portrait right) with whom he was rumoured to have had a romantic liaison.

In the one hundred years of its existence, there have been several outstanding recordings of Elgar’s second symphony. Those by Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir George Solti, Bernard Haitink, Vernon Handley, and Sir Colin Davis are particularly fine.

Yet there is one conductor who, so far, has not recorded it. The omission is startling because he is British, he has already made outstanding recordings of other works by Elgar, and he is currently music director and chief conductor of one of the world’s great orchestras.

Here’s hoping that 2011 will see Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic – both aptly matched to the technical and expressive demands of this wonderful work – record the symphony. I, for one, can’t wait.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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