The Elgar Enigma: Why Has England's Greatest Symphony All But Vanished?

America's leading British conductor, Benjamin Zander, is preparing to conduct what he believes to be England's greatest symphony, Elgar's First.
02/16/2016 04:11 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2017

America's leading British conductor, Benjamin Zander, is preparing to conduct what he believes to be England's greatest symphony, Elgar's First. Over a cup of English tea in his very English study, he feels... not exactly angry. Slighted might be a better word for it.

"When the symphony had its premiere in 1909," he says, "the audience recognized immediately that they were listening to a masterpiece. After the gorgeous slow movement, they applauded so vigorously that the music could not continue until the composer came onstage and took a bow.

"The piece was performed 17 times in London alone in the first year after its premiere," he continues, "and over 100 times around the world that year."

But the world's prejudice against most English composers kicked in, Zander says, and the piece all but vanished from the world's orchestral stages, though it remains a staple on concert programs in England.

The numbers tell the story: the Boston Symphony Orchestra has performed it on only 7 programs since 1909.

By contrast, the BSO has performed Brahms' 1st symphony over 400 times in that same period.

"And it's never been conducted by a BSO Music Director, since the premiere," Zander adds, a trace of disappointment masked by a traditional British stiff upper lip.

Zander and his Boston Philharmonic Orchestra will try to make up for lost time by offering three performances of Elgar's First, which the composer describes as "floating, intimate, breathing, lovely," at Harvard's Sanders Theater Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, and Saturday night at Jordan Hall.

You definitely know Elgar -- he composed "Pomp And Circumstance," de rigeur at graduations, from preschool to post-graduate.

"Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations is played at funerals the world over, including at Princess Diana's.

But his First Symphony is almost never heard outside England, which Zander considers a shame.
"If they had chosen the glorious, stately first theme of the first movement as the theme music for Downton Abbey, everyone around the world would be whistling it in the streets," Zander says.
"It was composed the same year in which the first year of that show is set. That theme captures perfectly that Victorian/Edwardian world of social order and the rightness of the Empire."
When asked what the piece meant, Elgar said that it didn't tell a story but instead represented "great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future."

Zander agrees. "It's a vision for a noble world," he adds, "that we have the capacity to imagine, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

"Back then, the British thought they were doing good in the world, bringing people into the world economy through the Empire. It might not seem politically correct from our 21st century perspective, but at the time, the spreading of civilization was considered a noble act."
Zander says the piece symbolizes "a very British idea -- that we never give up. We persevere. It's a heroic symphony."

Elgar himself was considered an outsider in society. He was a Catholic in a Church of England world. His father was a piano tuner at a time when class mattered.

His less than noble birth meant that even when named Master of the Queen's Music -- the most respected position a musician could attain -- he was nevertheless omitted altogether from a book listing the leading English musicians of the day.

The ongoing rejection took a toll. The First Symphony combines the magisterial "There will always be an England" theme with a sense of the composer's own anxiety and neuroticism.

"That gorgeous main tune," Zander explains, "appears first in full, then in little bits, then again in full glory, and then attacked on all sides by lightning bolts of doubt. When you get to the final triumph, all the battering of opposition has been overcome. The struggle is huge but the triumph is great."

Elgar's Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto are considered two of the greatest works ever written and are played the world over, but the real enigma is why his First Symphony, recognized immediately for its excellence, all but vanished from the concert hall in ensuing years.
"He was composing at the same time as Mahler," Zander says, "and he has been called the British Mahler."

The great conductor Hans Richter was even more emphatic, calling Elgar's 1st, "the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer- and not only in this country."

"But the question remains: why is there a cult around Mahler but none around Elgar?"
The BPO program also includes Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto, played by the Juilliard, Harvard and New England Conservatory-educated international performer Jennifer Frautschi and Schumann's dramatic overture to Manfred.

Zander, famous for his well-attended pre-concert talks, will explain at each performance what to listen for in the Elgar. As for the central mystery of why the English composer's has never got his due, even Maestro Zander may not have an explanation.
The music, however, will speak for itself.

Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Benjamin Zander. Sanders Hall, Thursday Feb. 18 at 7:30; Jordan Hall, Feb. 20, preconcert talk at 6:45 and concert at 8; Sanders Hall, Sunday, Feb. 21, preconcert talk at 1:45 p.m., concert at 3. Further information: http://www.bostonphil.org/