Friday, 8 January 2021

Edward Elgar / Music for the Baptism of Christ

 Edward Elgar is a fine example of social mobility in later Victorian society. Born the son of a piano tuner who owned a music shop in June 1857, the young Elgar was largely self-taught. He benefitted from growing up in a musical household and took full advantage of the resources available in his father's shop in Broadheath, nr Worcester in the West Midlands. He struggled for many years to establish himself as a prominent composer fighting both class and religious bigotry common at the time. Born a Roman Catholic  among a Protestant majority, the cards were stacked against him. During the last two decades of the eighteenth century he persevered, taught music and played the organ at a Roman Catholic church in Worcester and conducted and composed for local musical organisations. His compositional ability and style matured, and by the turn of the century it was clear his talent had surpassed that of the leading composers of his day.

In 1901 came the first two "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, the first in D major containing the famous trio section that was later to become Land of Hope and Glory. Elgar appreciated its worth; he had prophesied: "I've got a tune that will knock 'em - knock 'em flat! … a tune like that comes once in a lifetime …". In July 1904 he was knighted by the new king, Edward VII.

In 1906, Elgar was busy working on his great oratorio, The Kingdom, the sequel to The Apostles of 1903. (Elgar originally intended that there should be a cycle of three oratorios but the third part of the trilogy was never completed.) You can read more about The Apostles below.

Edward Elgar, c. 1900

Aged 29, Elgar took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts, and published author of verse and prose fiction. Eight years older than Elgar, Alice became his wife three years later. Elgar's biographer Michael Kennedy writes, "Alice's family was horrified by her intention to marry an unknown musician who worked in a shop and was a Roman Catholic. She was disinherited."

A prolific composer, the First World War depressed him significantly, and despite the support of his much-loved wife his output slowed significantly during this time. He was devoted to Alice and when she died in 1920 much of his inspiration and motivation disappeared. He died of a malignant tumour in 1934.

Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of acoustic recordings of his works. The introduction of the moving-coil microphone in 1923 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral works and excerpts from The Dream of Gerontius.
"For thirty years after his death in 1934, his music was considered to be 'out of fashion'. It was said to epitomise the Edwardian era and to have no relevance to a later age. I believe, however, that it is far too great to be tied to one short period of history and that, in any case, it is music of so personal a nature that it can be described accurately not as 'Edwardian' but only as 'Elgarian'." 
Michael Kennedy - 'Portrait of Elgar' (Oxford University Press -1968)
Edward Elgar (2nd June 1857 - 23rd February 1934) - "Those years had seen change accelerate as never before in human history. His response had been to seek the illumination of time remembered. For all those of his generation and the future who would feel the insight of retrospection, he had made of that evanescence his music." 
Jerrold Northrop Moore - 'Edward Elgar - A Creative Life' (Oxford University Press - 1984)

Baptism of Christ
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Epiphany, and marks the Baptism of the Lord. It is a time of new beginnings, and indeed Mark's Gospel opens at this point, where Jesus "goes public" and begins his Ministry. 

Elgar's oratorio "The Apostles" is a narrative work, dealing with the calling of the Apostles and their experiences of Jesus' preaching, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The work is in two parts and seven sections, each played without a break. Elgar claimed it had been a project he had first conceived  in boyhood, and selected the words from the Bible and Apocrypha. 

Part 1 is the "The Calling of the Apostles" and fits well with Jesus' Baptism. The music begins just before dawn; the sun rises, and one by one the Apostles are chosen. The prologue is the well-known "The Spirit of the Lord" with the words from Isaiah 61 vv. 1–3, 11 :-

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because He hath anointed me to
preach the gospel to the poor;
He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to preach the acceptable year of the Lord;
to give unto them that mourn
a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise
for the spirit of heaviness;
That they might be called trees of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord that He might be glorified.

For as the earth bringeth forth her bud,
and as the garden causeth the
things that are sown in it to spring forth;
So the Lord God will cause
righteousness and praise to
spring forth before all nations.

"When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." 

Luke 3: 21-22 

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