Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Adam Romey

Fits and Starts
Elgar considered the creation of a large-scale symphony to be a crowning musical achievement. Like many composers following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven, he found the task quite daunting. In 1898, he began conceiving of a symphony that would tell the story of British military hero General Charles George Gordon, as a nod to Beethoven’s initial dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon. Over the next three years, his best friend wrote a story outline, Elgar drafted a theme, and his wife reported hearing morsels of symphonic sketches. When a friend offered him a commission in 1901, Elgar declined and abandoned the project. He accepted another commission in 1904, but soon backed out. It wasn’t until 1907 that he finally began work on what would become his first symphony.

The Reception
Symphony No. 1 was finished in October of 1908 and premiered that December. It was enthusiastically received, and triumphantly declared the first great English symphony. Conductor Hans Richter called it “the greatest symphony of modern times.” Not only did the applause of the audience summon Elgar to the stage five times, the piece was performed more than 80 times around the world over the next year. While this symphony, like most of Elgar’s music, faded from non-British concert programs as the century progressed, it has begun to make a comeback in American concert halls. It has a healthy discography, though primarily by British orchestras, and the piece is admired by listeners and scholars alike.

The Music
One of the defining characteristics of both Elgar’s music and personality is the contrast between emotional episodes of vulnerable, inner experience and raw, anxious, unpredictable outbursts. The opening melody of the piece, marked ‘noble and simple’ in the score, begins intimately and steadily gains confidence, before dramatically launching off in other directions. Often, multiple and sometimes conflicting feelings are expressed, such as in the second movement’s alternation between the agitated drama with which it begins, and the punctuations of emotions equally playful, wistful, and melancholic. Considered by many to be the fullest realization of Elgar’s lyricism, the third movement showcases the orchestral forces in both broad sweeps and intimate detail, the way a skilled painter uses different brushes and colors across a canvas. Elgar’s self-doubt and earnest artistic devotion on his journey toward creating this symphony can be heard in the piece itself, particularly in the return of the opening melody at the end of the fourth movement in a grand restatement that was, for him, years in the making.

Joachim’s Hamlet Overture

Notes by TŌN horn player Ethan Brozka

The Composer
Joseph Joachim is known by many people solely because of his career as a performer. He was a violin virtuoso in the most outsized 19th-century way. His reputation was, and remains still, larger than life. But besides being Brahms’ favorite violinist, a pedagogical authority, and a sought-after performer all across Europe, Joachim was also a hard-working and well-studied, if relatively unprolific, composer. He lived in the era in which Romanticism was nearing its peak and the link between poetry and music was becoming more functional and symbiotic, in the style of Liszt.

The Subject
Hamlet is the subject of our first piece, and since the narrative of this play is considered far ahead of its time, one could easily argue that the content of the play is downright Romantic. There’s an introspective hero, copious amounts of dramatic irony, unrequited love, a usurped throne, and plenty of other poignant material around which to craft a dramatic musical narrative. The play’s eponymous hero is perhaps the most Romantic element of all. Hamlet is told from the first scene to avenge his father’s untimely death, and despite this very clear instruction, he spends the duration of the play in emotional and moral turmoil, struggling with how to do the deed. This in itself is a vivid portrayal of the archetypal Romantic hero. You’ll hear this turmoil reflected in the music—indecisive and mysterious—as well as hints of Brahms and Berlioz.

The Reception
This overture may be new to many listeners, and it did meet with limited success when it was first premiered in several places throughout Europe. The composer worked diligently and tirelessly on this piece for many years, sending drafts to his mentors and revising furiously, never quite satisfied with the results. Joachim believed in one case that the orchestra was at fault, writing in a letter, “Yes, if only they were all sensitive souls! — but the musicians blow and bow the notes so coarsely — and what in my mind was a sigh or a joyful Ach! was a crass horn tone — a screechy fiddle bow noise — why are there so many workmen, only!!” The work has been more present in orchestral programming in the past half-century, however, and Joachim is posthumously widening his reputation beyond being solely a violinist.