The Wand of Youth, Suite I, Op. 1a (1907)
By Bernard Jacobson
Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
“What remains for ever a wonder is Sir Edward Elgar’s want of youth,” said a review in those dangerous days when critics would call their copy in to the paper by telephone. Nothing could be further from the truth either about this enchanting suite of incidental music or about Elgar’s artistic character in general. Even in such works of his fifties as the First Symphony and Falstaff, maturity finds space for episodes that hark nostalgically back to childhood. And the Wand of Youth pieces wave the magic implement of their title with unmistakable freshness.
Where the expression of innocence and childlike wonderment are concerned, there are two kinds of music: music of childhood, and music about childhood. Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica and Loeffler’s Memories of My Childhood fall essentially into the latter category. In the Wand of Youth, by contrast, Elgar did what Benjamin Britten was to do in his Simple Symphony, taking music created in actual childhood and giving it a finished form that profits from later technical and artistic experience. Britten was only twenty and Elgar exactly twice that age when they did their revisions, but the principle is the same, and the materials in both cases were in existence by the time each composer was twelve years old.
The originals reworked in the two Wand of Youth suites were originally composed for a play devised by Elgar and his brothers and sisters back in the 1860s. Since they survive only in their 1907 and 1908 orchestral incarnations, we cannot be sure how close these are in musical character to their juvenile source. But the sheer personality of the music suggests that Elgar, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, came into being fully formed. The ardent cantabile theme in the First Suite’s overture foreshadows the mature Elgar’s taste for wide melodic leaps of a sixth or seventh; the gnomic brass utterances depicting the giants in its last movement belong in the same expressive world as the concert overture In the South, with the baleful grandeur of its “ancient Roman” episode.
The sheer orchestral mastery throughout, moreover, while doubtless owing much to thirty intervening years of experience, had its foundation right back in Elgar’s teens and even before. Though self-taught as a composer, he had good teachers on several instruments: he mastered piano and violin as a small child, picked up knowledge of the organ from his father’s professional work, and had begun to add viola, cello, and bassoon to his conquests before he was ten. This was the basis for the phenomenal orchestral technique that led the English orchestral violist Bernard Shore to observe: “In one respect no composer has ever matched Elgar. None other has fully exploited all the orchestral instruments and at the same time written nothing impossible. In this latter respect Strauss frequently sins, and so did Wagner. Most latter-day composers set entirely unnecessary problems of execution . . . Elgar was unerring.” In this respect as in others, the child was clearly father to the man.