Destinations: United Kingdom

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on March 17, 2019 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “United Kingdom” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

Among music scholars, British music has a reputation for conservatism. When Stravinsky was shocking audiences with “Rite of Spring,” when Schoenberg was smashing tonality into itty-bitty pieces, when Debussy and Ravel were painting pretty pictures with unusual chords — where were the British? They were still writing prim and stately music that, from a theory perspective, was not far removed from anything that could have been written a generation earlier in France or Austria. But, even aside from music theory, British composers never seemed to get into the excessive spirit of the Romantic age, and beyond. Their music can be deeply emotional, but, as a rule, understatedly so, as befits the country famous for keeping the stiff upper lip.

British composers do handle their brass a little differently than their Continental counterparts. Generally speaking, European composers from Mozart onward were inventive about integrating the French horns into their orchestral textures, but the rest of the brass were saved for the “big moments” — the flourishes, cadences and finales. Whereas, British composers carefully knead the trumpet, trombone and tuba sounds into the general texture, not just atop the musical peaks but down in the valleys as well. This British trait may have something to do with their longstanding brass band tradition. Perhaps they are just a little more used to the sound of brass, and therefore a little less shy about where they place it.

See if you agree with these observations after listening to today’s concert, which features three distinguished British composers.

Sir William Walton (1902-1983) is best known for his movie scores, his stunning First Symphony, and his epic, biblical Belshazzar’s Feast. However, in 1937 England, there was writing on the wall of a very different sort. Edward abdicated to marry a commoner, forfeiting the crown to his brother, George VI. Ceremony is so important at the national level because it makes a show of confidence: there will always be an England, even if there won’t always be a King Edward. The organizers of the pageant asked Walton for a march similar in style to Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches. He responded with “Crown Imperial.” The march was so successful, its success has outlived its composer. It was performed at George’s coronation, at his daughter Elizabeth’s coronation (1953), and at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (2011). The march has also been arranged for concert band, and has become a favorite of international concert audiences.

Concertos have been written for practically every other instrument, including harmonicas and accordions. So then, why not a tuba concerto? The tuba is one of the newest instruments in the orchestra. It was developed in the mid-19th century by Adolphe Sax, who also invented the saxophone. The tuba soon acquired a permanent place in the modern orchestra, becoming the low brass’ anchorman and supplanting its ungainly predecessors, the serpent and the ophicleide (or “awful Clyde”, as it is sometimes called). The art of tuba-playing has reached phenomenal heights in recent years, and prominent composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Williams have risen to the challenge of writing a tuba concerto. In 1976, the Besses o’ th’ Barn Brass Band commissioned British composer Edward Gregson (b. 1945) to write a Tuba Concerto, and they premiered it with John Fletcher, legendary tubist with the London Symphony Orchestra, performing the solo. The concerto was later arranged for orchestra (1978) and concert band (1984). The piece has three movements, all of which are quite lyrical — showing that the tuba is capable of playing a beautiful melody, when invited. Gregson’s music sustains its lyrical quality even during the flashy instrumental “show-off” passages. The music is strongly tonal and keeps dissonance under check, acquiring harmonic interest instead from its shifting modalities and abrupt but distinct modulations.

Likewise, the music of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is almost relentlessly diatonic; it seldom strays into a chromatic wilderness, like Wagner’s. He relies on other techniques to keep his music interesting — particularly his use of wide intervals in his melodic lines, often accompanied by thick, rich harmonies. One autumn evening in 1898, Elgar sat down at his piano and plunked out a melody. His wife liked it, and he started improvising, composing variations of it on the spot. Those improvisations became Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36 — or, as we call it today, the Enigma Variations. Elgar’s improvised melody became the Enigma theme, and its variations were intended to characterize his circle of friends.

An enigma is a person or a thing that is puzzling, hard to understand. Elgar enjoyed games and cryptology — in fact, he once solved a puzzle that was posed to all of England by a master puzzler. Of his Enigma theme, Elgar said “its dark saying must be left unguessed” but clues he left later in life pay homage to something quite familiar. Musicologists have been stumped for years as to what he was talking about; but it’s possible we should have been asking the mathematicians instead. The Enigma melody starts on the third of the scale, descends to the first, ascends to the fourth, and then descends to the second — in math, that could be expressed as 3.142, which is pi. Of course Sir Edward is no longer here for us to ask, and we don’t really know what he meant. But this is how his mind worked. We can never be quite sure whether he was just writing music, or also trying to tease our intellects.

After the Enigma theme follows fourteen short variations, a couple of which deserve more than a short mention.

Variation I “C.A.E” is Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar; Elgar credits her with giving him “romantic and delicate inspiration.” Alice, eight years his senior, had been disinherited by her family when she married this struggling, Roman Catholic musician. She wrote in her diary, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.” This movement employs a four-note melody Elgar would whistle to her when greeting her.

Variation IX, “Nimrod” is Augustus J. Jaeger, the editor for a music publisher. (Nimrod, from the Bible, is described as a “mighty hunter before the Lord,” and Jaeger is the German word for “hunter.”) This variation is the centerpiece of the Enigma Variations. As a colleague, Jaeger provided Elgar with much sound advice on his compositions, some of it highly critical, but all of it welcome. As a friend, Jaeger encouraged Elgar when he was down. For “Nimrod”, Elgar composed a sweeping, hymn-like melody that gives the impression of great benevolence and noblesse oblige. It is by far the piece’s most famous movement, and is often performed by itself.

As for the remaining movements? Variation VIII “W.N.” is a secretary who had a sparkling laugh. Variation X “Dorabella,” is a girl with a slight stutter, gently suggested in the woodwinds. Variation II “H.D.S-P” is an amateur pianist who habitually warmed up on poorly-fingered scalar passages before rehearsals. Variation VII “Troyte” is one of Elgar’s closest friends, an architect, with whom he was out walking one day and got caught in a furious thunderstorm. Variation XI “G.R.S.” is actually about a friend’s bulldog, named Dan, who fell down a steep slope into a river and emerged on the bank, triumphantly. His friend told Elgar, “Set that to music!” And more. Together, they complete the portrait of a life that is rich and full, even if at times short on cash. When you write about your friends, you are writing indirectly about yourself; who your friends are tells a lot about who you are.

The final Variation XIV: “E.D.U.” is Elgar himself — his wife’s pet name for him was “Edu”. Here, he reprises two earlier variations, “C.A.E.” and “Nimrod” — he gives his wife Alice and his friend Jaeger center stage because he considers them his most profound influences. After the original version was already published, Jaeger convinced Elgar to strengthen the finale, so Elgar added another hundred or so measures and the organ part — that’s the version that’s played today, which ends with the original Enigma theme recapped in a stirring climax of brass, organ and percussion. Perhaps that was Elgar’s way of saying he was the biggest enigma of all, at least to himself.

The Enigma Variations is the composition that earned Elgar international fame — even as far away as Russia, where it garnered praise from Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. With this masterpiece, Elgar secured his place in music history. British biographer Humphrey Burton, writing about Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the Enigma Variations, said that, for Bernstein, “The real enigma is how a work which has echoes of so many earlier European composers should come out sounding so British, so personal to Edward Elgar: that is the Enigma of Genius.”