Elgar: Concert Overture, In the South (Alassio), Opus 50

EDWARD WILLIAM ELGAR

BORN:  June 2, 1857. Broadheath, Worcestershire, England

DIED: February 23, 1934. Worcester, England

COMPOSED: Begun late in 1903 and completed on February 21, 1904

WORLD PREMIERE: March 16, 1904. Elgar conducted the Hallé Orchestra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

US PREMIERE: May 3, 1906. Elgar conducted at the Cincinnati May Festival

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— December 1987. Andrew Massey conducted. MOST RECENT—December 2004. Yan Pascal Tortelier led

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, glockenspiel, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY Many of you will remember that one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations depicts the bulldog Dan falling into the river Wye, paddling upstream in search of a suitable landing, and regaining the shore with a joyous bark. Dan belonged to George Robertson Sinclair, the organist at Hereford Cathedral. Between 1897, when Elgar and Sinclair became friends, and July 1903, when Dan went to his reward, Elgar sketched several of what he called “The Moods of Dan.” These fragments in turn yielded themes for larger works, among them the oratorios The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles, and also In the South. In fact, the charge-ahead opening of this overture grew in the soil of the Herefordshire countryside. In a mostly serious letter to Percy Pitt, who wrote the program note for the premiere of In the South, Elgar marked the first theme “Joy of Life (wine & macaroni)”; in Dr. Sinclair’s album, where Elgar notated it in the summer of 1899, it is “Dan Triumphant (after a fight).”

How, then, did Dan end up in Alassio, a resort about halfway between Nice and Genoa? 1903 had been a strenuous year for Elgar. Work on The Apostles had exhausted him, and on November 21 he and his wife set out for Italy in search of sunshine and rest. They went first to Bordighera, just a few miles from the French border—home, according to the Blue Guide, of "a large English colony." Elgar put it more pungently: “. . . lovely but too cockney for me. . . . the whole place is English & the folk 1/2 French—also it feels like Malvern & the roads are full of English nurserymaids & old English women & children.” In any event, the Elgars could not find a suitable house, and so they moved on to Alassio, where they were joined by their daughter Carice and by Rosa Burley, a schoolmistress friend. “This place is jolly,” wrote Elgar, “real Italian & no nursemaids calling out ‘Now, Master Johnny!’. . . . What matters the Mediterranean being rough & grey? Who cares for gales? Tramontana! We have such meals! such wine! Gosh! We are at last living a life.”

But before long, Alice Elgar recorded in her diary: “Still cold & grey & wind—E. and A. much depressed at these conditions & wondering if they will not pack up & go home. E. feeling no inspiration for writing.” And Elgar wrote to his friend August Jaeger, the “Nimrod” of the Enigma Variations, “This visit has been, is, artistically, a complete failure & I can do nothing: we have been perished with cold, rain & gales—five fine days have we had & three of those were perforce spent in the train. The Symphony will not be written in this sunny (?) land. I am trying to finish a Concert overture for Covent Garden instead of the Sym.”

The first performance of the Enigma Variations in 1899 had propelled Elgar into sudden and immense fame, and the English music world eagerly awaited his first symphony; indeed, the Leeds Festival hoped to present it in the summer of 1904. That premiere would not come about until December 1908, but meanwhile Elgar’s friend Frank Schuster had organized a three-day Elgar Festival for March 1904 with Hans Richter and the Hallé Orchestra and Chorus at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. No English musician had ever been tendered such a tribute during his lifetime. Elgar had agreed to produce a new work for the occasion, and so it was that Dan the bulldog and Elgar’s happier impressions of Italy came together to produce In the South.

Elgar often associated poetry and music, and he put several quotations into his manuscript, among them this from Tennyson’s The Daisy:

What hours were thine and mine

In lands of palm and southern pine

In lands of palm, of orange-blossom

Of olive, aloe, and maize and vine

 

and the following, from Byron’s Childe Harold:

. . . a land

Which was the mightiest in its old command

And is the loveliest . . .

Wherein were cast . . .

. . . the men of Rome!

Thou art the garden of the world.

THE MUSIC Calling In the South a concert overture was misleading; weighing in at twenty minutes or so, the piece is more like a tone poem. Elgar moves out with Straussian élan. This is the kind of beginning that Strauss learned from Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, that he himself managed so splendidly in Don Juan (which Elgar admired), Ein Heldenleben (which Elgar had not heard at the time of “Dan Triumphant”), and Der Rosenkavalier (not yet written), and of which Elgar would provide an even more vital example in the Symphony No. 2. (Elgar, by the way, was a bit itchy about the Strauss connection and asked that his German contemporary’s—and admirer’s—name not be mentioned in the program note.)

The music rises to a “joyous climax” (words in quotation marks are taken from Elgar’s guide to his annotator), after which comes quieter matter—shepherd’s music, the composer tells us, with “romance creeping into the picture,” and a violin phrase marked “Moglio!” for a village where the Elgars visited a ruined church, Elgar driving the adults crazy and delighting Carice by his obsessive singing of the words “Moglio, Moglio, Roglio, Roglio.”

As he would again do ten years later in Falstaff, Elgar inserts some independent poetic interludes. The first of these slows the tempo and changes the meter from three to two: “El. & family musing (this is not bad).”

The “Moglio” phrase moves the music back into its original gait. Then comes an amazing episode marked “grandioso” in the score. Here Elgar, writing two more lines of Tennyson into his manuscript—“What Roman strength Turbia show'd/In ruin, by the mountain road”—“[endeavors] to paint the relentless and domineering onward force of the ancient day, and to give a sound-picture of the strife and wars, the ‘drums and tramplings’ of a later time.” Elgar builds these sequences with brutal force, writing the boldest dissonances of his life and reinforcing these with the rhythmic dissonance of displaced accents.

When the basic movement resumes once more, it is with new turbulence (“strife”), but this quickly gives way to another independent episode and the most magically delicate pages of In the South. Together with the harp, divided violins (muted and pianissimo) provide a swaying accompaniment to a gentle and romantic viola solo—Edward in Italy, one of Elgar's biographers has called it (referencing Berlioz’s own viola showpiece Harold in Italy). The horn takes the tune for a while, as do the violins, and various woodwinds, timpani, and glockenspiel add accents of wondrous delicacy. “I don't know who wrote the tune & I have not put it in exactly as heard,” Elgar wrote, but years later he admitted that he himself was the author of this “canto popolare.”

Upon this there follows a formal recapitulation, including a return of the “musing” episode. The coda becomes ever more quick and excited, and the overture ends in utmost brilliance.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

LISTEN AGAIN: Andrew Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Teldec)

(June 2019)