Photo: A portrait of English violinist Albert Sammons.
Edward Elgar’s Violin Sonata was one of three chamber works Elgar composed more or less concurrently towards the end of the First World War at Brinkwells, the country cottage the Elgars had rented near Fittleworth in Sussex. Although he had begun work on the String Quartet before the sonata, he completed the sonata first. Elgar was himself a competent player of both the violin and the piano and the work proceeded quickly to completion in little over a month.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Violin Sonata (1952) is his last major chamber work and his most neglected one. In three movements, it lasts nearly half an hour. The opening Fantasia is full of nervous energy and virtuosic violin writing. Calm alternates with passages of faster, more dissonant music. There is something ironic about the scherzo, like the clown with a grim secret, and it is this which makes it so powerful. The theme of the final movement is taken from the piano quintet of fifty years earlier. It a gentle, memorable tune on which VW composes variations. This is a fine work and should be much better known.
Frederick Delius’ health was recovering in 1924 when he began his 3rd sonata for violin and piano. But his illnesses returned and he had to lay the work aside, presumably forever. However he was able to return to his composition after the young Yorkshireman Eric Fenby arrived as his assistant. The sonata was finished in 1930.
The year 1934 was especially hard on the English music scene as it saw the deaths of three major composers from the UK; Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius and Edward Elgar.
Gustav Holst is best known for the suite for large orchestra called The Planets. He wrote one symphony called the Cotswolds Symphony. First performed in 1902, the work deals with thematic hints of English folk-music.
Frederick Delius was born and raised in Yorkshire. But he left England and spent most of his life in other countries. The North Country Sketches are a look back to his original home, however. Almost a “Four Seasons” for orchestra the suite is in four movements; Autumn, Winter Landscape, Dance and The March of Spring.
Of the three, Edward Elgar is most closely associated with Great Britain. Although remember for his grandiose orchestral compositions, he also wrote small songs for voice and piano. A Song of Autumn is a setting of the poem of the same name by Adam Lindsay Gordon. The Shepherd’s Song tells the story of a lonely shepherd singing of his pastoral life by the sea.
Have you ever returned from a vacation reenergized and inspired to create? A trip to Italy inspired Englishman Edward Elgar to write an orchestral overture called, “In the South”. Elgar spent time in the Italian Riviera town of Alassio where he had a “eureka” moment. He later wrote:
“Then in a flash, it all came to me – streams, flowers, hills; the distant snow mountains in one direction and the blue Mediterranean in the other; the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago, where I now stood – the contrast of the ruin and the shepherd – and then, all of a sudden, I came back to reality. In that time I had composed the overture – the rest was merely writing it down.”
Check out these other composers on vacation:
Elgar taking a nap
Respighi hanging at the beach with friends (2nd from right)
Music for the ballet is our feature on this week’s An English Pastorale with music by Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax and Constant Lambert.
Edward Elgar’s The Sanguine Fan was written in 1917 for a performance in support of war charity. The light plot of the ballet was taken from the scenario depicted on a sylvan fan by artist Charles Sonder. The entire composition wasn’t recorded until 1973. We’ll hear the 1989 recording by Brydon Thomson and the London Philharmonic.
From Dusk Till Dawn by Arnold Bax (PHOTO) was commissioned by the same woman who commissioned Elgar’s work in the same year. She requested a ballet from Bax for a charity matinee at London’s Palace Theatre. The story revolves around china figures who can suddenly move one summer night.
Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet is one of only two commissions for British composer by the famous Russian choreographer Sergei Diaghilev. It’s not a traditional retelling of the Shakespeare classic, but about a ballet company rehearsing for a performance. The story picks up on the traditional tale except for the fact that at the end the lovers elope by airplane. The original set and costume design was a collaboration by Max Ernst and Joan Miro.
Join us for An English Pastorale Sunday morning at 9 on Classical 90.5. In the meantime, enjoy an excerpt from Romeo and Juliet with photos of the set design:
“Your music has struck a fibre in my being, which is beyond analysis, but which I feel is the truest and noblest chord that has yet been souned in our art.”
-Letter from Granville Bantock to Frederick Delius
Granville Bantock was an influential musical force in Great Britain, both in and behind the music scene. Born into a wealthy family, his father attempted to make Granville into a diplomat, then a chemist. But Bantock found the disciplines distasteful to the point that he began to suffer ill health from depression. His father eventually acquiesced to Granville’s plea to study music.
Bantock attended the Royal Academy of Music and his music career took off. He became a conductor of light opera while writing his own compositions. Through his conducting duties he was introduced to the big names in classical music in Britain at the time.
Bantock was known for his kindness to other musicians. He often offered his home to friends if they were visiting for extended stays. When he heard that his friend Frederick Delius was in financial straits, he bought the Delius home and then allowed the Deliuses to remain in their home rent-free. He was knighted for his services to music and education in 1930.