Edward Elgar â€“ The Third Symphony
W. H. Reed’s Elgar As I Knew Him â€“ Part 3
Throughout Billy Reed’s book Elgar As I Knew Him, first published in 1936, we get superb insights into the composer’s life, from how – with Reed’s own skill as a violinist — he managed to “organise” his magnificent Violin Concerto (a piece, for some reason, we seldom hear these days), with Reed trying out the difficult passages to see if they could actually be done. We also see Elgar as a man of many passions, one of which was for chemistry (with resultant explosions) with a fully equipped laboratory set-up in a garden shed; in fact Elgar patented an apparatus for producing sulphurated hydrogen known as the “Elgar S.H. Apparatus”. The shed (known as “The Ark”) was also used by Elgar and Reed to hide, from Lady Elgar, bottles of India Pale Ale they’d smuggled in from the local pub in a sack â€“ all very Ealing Comedy, all very English.
And when you learn that Elgar, after a dinner party, liked nothing better than to entertain his guests with toys bought from Woolworth’s, you are suddenly very close to the heart of the man: to a man of fun (and childhood fun at that), fun that can be heard in all his music, but often darkened by periods of black depression that often accompanies the fun at a discreet distance.
All of this is in Reed’s book, and Elgar’s love of dogs, which was something he was only able to indulge in after Lady Elgar’s death in 1920, with Mina, a Cairn Terrier (he wrote a lovely piece of music named after her), and Marco, a Spaniel â€“ plus, at one time another Cairn Terrier – becoming his inseparable companions, whose constant love, along with Bernard Shaw’s badgering, may have given Elgar the courage to accept the BBC’s commission to write a third symphony.
On page 169 of his book Reed gets round to the subject of the 3rd Symphony…
Before entering upon the description of this work, let me quote a letter I received from Bernard Shaw, which may act as an additional deterrent to anyone who may think that, after all, it is a tragedy that this symphony should remain unperformed, and that some other composer should take fragments and build them into some sort of practicable coherence: in short, as Elgar said, tinker with it.
August 17, 1934
“What is a symphony? A hundred years ago it was a composition in a clear symmetrical pattern established by Haydn and called Sonata Form. Now if half a symmetrical design is completed, any draughtsman can supply the missing half. If Haydn had died during the composition of one of his symphonies, and had left notes of its themes, and a hint or two of its bridge passages, Beethoven could easily have contributed a perfect Haydn symphony from them as an act of piety or musical jeu d’ esprit.
“On the same terms any educated musician could construct an unfinished Rossini overture.
“But no composer of symphonies nowadays adheres to the decorative patterns. The musical romances and extravaganzas of Berlioz, the symphonic poems of Liszt and Strauss, and the tone dramas of Wagner could not have conformed to symmetrical decorative patterns: they had to find expressionist forms: and to reconstruct a lost expressionist composition from a fragment would be as impossible as to reconstruct a Shakespeare sonnet from the last two lines of it.
“All the great symphonies after Beethoven are as expressionist as Wagner’s music-dramas, even when, as in the Symphonies of Brahms and Elgar, the skeleton of the old pattern is still discernible. All possibility of reconstruction from fragments or completion from beginnings is gone.
” Consequently, though Elgar left some sketches of a third symphony and was actually at work on it when he died, no completion or reconstruction is possible: the symphony, like Beethoven’s tenth, died with the composer.â€
Which puts into question again the wisdom of Anthony Payne ‘elaborating’ upon the sketches left by Elgar for his 3rd. But I’ll leave the reader to mull over that question. All I know is â€“ listening to Payne’s recording as I write â€“ that I’d sooner have them than not.
Billy Reed goes on…
â€œ The material for a third symphony had been in Elgar’s mind for years. Some of the themes and ideas are written down in his scrap-books, in various guises â€“ frequently the same phrase repeated in different keys. In the latter part of 1933 he began to get all these fragments â€“ in some instances as many as twenty or thirty consecutive bars â€“ on paper, though they were rarely harmonically complete. A clear view of the whole symphony was forming in his mind. He would write a portion of the Finale, or the middle section of the second movement. It did not seem at all odd to him to begin things in the middle, or to switch off suddenly from one movement to another. It is evident that he had the whole conception in his head in a more or less nebulous condition. He told me it was going to be cast in the same form as the two earlier symphonies, but was to be simpler in construction and design.â€
And listening now Payne has certainly caught that admirably.
Reed goes on to write about the 3rd Symphony movement by movement, until you feel you can hear the thing coming to fruition in your head. It is a superb piece of writing.
Earlier in the book, at the end of “Personal” section we are allowed a glimpse into the last few days and hours of Elgar’s life…
â€œ When he was well enough to dictate, I offered to act as his amanuensis, only to realise that he could never stand the strain of such work again.
â€œ So the symphony remained so incomplete that none of it can ever be played, and, as will be seen later, he left instructions that the task of trying to complete it was never to be attempted.
â€œ On the morning of November 20th, 1933, I received this telegram: ‘Father unconscious, sinking rapidly â€“ MY Love â€“ Carice.’ After the first shock, which seemed to numb my senses, I gradually realised its import, and, as its full meaning grew on me, hastened to the telephone. Yes; he was still unconscious and his doctor could not hold out much hope, but, just before he passed into this state, he was asking for me. Could I come â€“ as he might rally during the day? I hurriedly looked up the next train to Worcester. What time did it leave Paddington, and could I catch it?
â€œ I arrived at Worcester in the early afternoon, and was driven at once to the nursing-home, where Sir Edward was lying still unconscious, but, as was whispered to me, showing signs of improvement. I sat watching him for some time, noting his familiar features. They had scarcely changed during his illness: his hair was a little whiter perhaps, and his characteristic nose, with its high bridge, a trifle more prominent; but his colour was good, and he did not look very much thinner than before.
â€œ While I was letting my mind run back over the thirty or more years during which he had honoured me with his closest friendship, he suddenly opened his eyes, and, looking intently into my face for a few seconds, uttered my name, as a smile stole over his face…â€
Now, that is writing of the first order, and Reed goes on to explain how Elgar, as he fought unconsciousness told Reed that he must not allow anyone to ‘tinker’ with his 3rd Symphony, a request Reed agreed to.
There can be no doubt that Reed’s hurried visit to Worcester that day in November 1933 gave Elgar the will to live a few more months, allowing him to die (dogs at his side) in his own bed at Marl Bank early in the New Year.
If you’re new to Elgar and want to find out more you could worse than start with Billy Reed’s beautiful memoir.
Reed died in Dumfries on July 2 1942.