Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 63 (1911)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Why do we value an artist? Is it for the vividness with which he mirrors the society he lives in? Or is it rather for his ability to transcend his time and bring an unfamiliar message to the ears of his contemporaries?

The average concert-goer probably thinks of Elgar as a big, swaggering figure of a composer, typifying the brash self-confidence of the Edwardian age, when Britain was still Great and her empire far-flung. In some degree Elgar’s manner–epitomized by his favorite score indication nobilmente–justifies this estimate. It seems to be supported also by the Second Symphony’s dedication “To the Memory of His late Majesty King Edward VII,” and by Elgar’s note that the work, begun before the King’s death, was “designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute.”

Yet there is another, vitally different side to Elgar, and a potent hint of it appears right opposite that very dedication page. The symphony’s poetic epigraph is a quotation from Shelley:

Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of delight!

This hardly sounds like the motto of an unreflecting extrovert. And though the Spirit of delight makes an immediate appearance at the start of the symphony, the atmosphere soon grows complex and shadowed. The first movement and the scintillating scherzo alike incorporate episodes of baleful portent, which invade the mental landscape of the piece like nightmares; the second movement is a full-hearted and throat-catching threnody, less a tribute than a regretful farewell to imperial grandeur; and the finale, at first so confident and firm of tread, ends not with pompous affirmation but with a long, lingering epilogue framed in terms of rapt mystery.

Despite the image many have of Elgar as an assertive public man, this intensely private tone is characteristic of his major works. The Violin Concerto, like the Second Symphony, ends with a contemplative episode of exquisite hushed beauty; the Cello Concerto is saturnine, even tragic, almost throughout; the First Symphony’s apparently glorious A-flat-major peroration is shot through with foreign notes that subvert the key and mock the triumph; and even the grandiloquent ending of the popular Enigma Variations was not a part of the original conception–Elgar added it only after friends persuaded him, with questionable judgment, that the work needed a more emphatic finale.

What all of this perhaps suggests is that the answer to my opening question is neither formula by itself, but rather a bit of both. It would be foolish to ignore or underestimate the proclamatory aspect of Elgar–the part of him that innocently rejoiced to have invented, in Land of Hope and Glory, “a tune that will knock ’em — knock ’em flat.” But the greatest value of that aspect for thoughtful listeners in Elgar’s own time was that it helped them to understand his inward side.

It is not, for an artist, enough just to rebel against your society’s ideas, any more than it is enough to accept them all with meek conformism. The composer who does the first will be merely incomprehensible, the latter kind can have no claim on his audience’s attention. The elements of familiarity are what is needed if we are to make sense of the unfamiliar. But the unfamiliar, thus rendered comprehensible, is what makes the artist valuable in the end. In Elgar’s younger compatriot Michael Tippett, what we value is the gift for creating, “in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty” (Tippett’s own description of his endeavor). Conversely, Elgar’s greatness lies in his capacity to see beneath the splendid generic surface of Edwardian prosperity and penetrate to the depths of the individual human soul.