Thursday, 8 March 2012


One of Edward Elgar's loveliest pieces is his Elegy for Strings, Op.58. Written in memory of his close friend and publisher August Jaeger, it feels like (and is) a very personal piece. It doesn't gush but contents itself with mourning in a dignified way, striking a peaceful tone. In its use of poignant suspensions and its harmonic fluidity, it inhabits a world that is quite close in spirit to the Mahler of the Adagietto or the young Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht - though it's considerably shorter than either. The opening of Elgar's little masterpiece consists of a sequence of tender chords on upper strings falling against a funereal pizzicato accompaniment from the cellos and basses. It's a beautiful beginning. Then the violins sing the gorgeous 'cantabile' melody - a melody that doesn't sob but sighs (and makes me sigh too). 

The Elegy wasn't, of course, the only piece Jaeger inspired. He was also famously the inspiration behind Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. We have a lot to thank him for.

I love Romantic elegies and one I feel particularly passionate about is Tchaikovsky's Elegy in memory of Ivan Samarin - one of his finest pieces, for all its unfamiliarity. Like the Elgar, it has a main melody of exceptional beauty, is written with great imagination for a string orchestra and strikes a dignified, peaceful tone (for the most part). It also makes poignant yet heart-easing use of harmonic suspensions. The central passage is more anguished, shuddering with grief. That there is no comparable outburst in Elgar's piece might be thought to say a good deal about the characters of their respective composers and perhaps also about the cultures of their respective countries at the time - except for the surprising and inconvenient fact that this piece did not begin as an elegy. It was written as a 'grateful greeting' to Samarin, an actor, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. Only after Samarin's death did Tchaikovsky re-christen it as 'Elegy'. 

So, Tchaikovsky wasn't channelling feelings of grief and loss when he first wrote it (however sincere and heartfelt it sounds) and this outburst might much more accurately be seen as an example of its composer's dramatic genius. Note also how the coda brings in major-key harmony as a gesture of hope. Tchaikovsky didn't help himself with some of his his own pronouncements - such as saying that he wept while writing the finale of the Pathetique Symphony, even while all the other evidence from the time of writing shows him to have been generally cheerful at the time - and that has distorted how many people think of the composer. From all my reading about him, I'd say he was far less heart-on-sleeve than many people think and what people might take to be him emoting is much better seen as him writing music that evokes emotion. If great authors and playwrights can do that, why can't great composers?

Moving away from the Romantics, Igor Stravinsky, that other great Russian composer, wrote several elegiac works, ranging from the masterly Symphonies of Wind Instruments following the death of Debussy to the considerably less masterly Elegy for JFK. Few composers chose to be less heart-on-sleeve than Stravinsky, yet do you not find his 1944 Elegy for solo viola touching? It was composed in memory of Alphonse Onnou, founder of the Pro Arte Quartet. It's in ternary (three-part form) with a two-part invention as its outer panels and a fugue at its centre. The two-part invention sets two lines of melody in intimate counterpoint - one a lament that strikes a strong note of Russian chant, the other a tender tune based around tonic triads. The fugue is also in two parts (unlike most fugues). The solo viola plays suitably muted throughout. Sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant, the harmony is pleasingly unpredictable. Formally perfect it may be, but its emotional impact is strong too. Or at least I find it so. 

No comments:

Post a Comment