Elgar’s First Symphony Premieres to Acclaim Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Edward Elgar’s First Symphony premiered in Manchester, England, it provided a new foundation for English symphonic music.

Summary of Event

Edward Elgar’s determination to write a symphony helped to revitalize the nearly moribund tradition of serious English music as well as to inspire the next generation of English composers, which included such figures as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Havergal Brian. Still widely perceived as the composer of imperialistic England, Elgar was himself a contradictory mixture of bluff self-assurance, naïve patriotism, and Victorian heartiness on one hand and incisive introspection, remorseful nostalgia, and painful regret on the other. Born to a middle-class Roman Catholic family, he struggled hard to rise above neglect, class and religious prejudice, and his own quixotic personality to earn a position as the foremost English composer since Henry Purcell at the end of the seventeenth century. Music;symphonic Symphonic music First Symphony (Elgar) [kw]Elgar’s First Symphony Premieres to Acclaim (Dec. 3, 1908)[Elgars First Symphony Premieres to Acclaim (Dec. 3, 1908)] [kw]First Symphony Premieres to Acclaim, Elgar’s (Dec. 3, 1908) [kw]Symphony Premieres to Acclaim, Elgar’s First (Dec. 3, 1908) Music;symphonic Symphonic music First Symphony (Elgar) [g]England;Dec. 3, 1908: Elgar’s First Symphony Premieres to Acclaim[02250] [c]Music;Dec. 3, 1908: Elgar’s First Symphony Premieres to Acclaim[02250] Elgar, Edward Richter, Hans Gordon, Charles George

Having first achieved international attention for his Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) in 1899, Elgar Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) (Elgar) consolidated his position as a great orchestral writer with his First Symphony (1908), which confirmed his status as the greatest English composer of his time and England’s first great symphonic writer. Elgar grew up in a culture that was not conducive to the writing of opera, and he poured much of his youthful creative impulse into the creation of religious and patriotic oratorios. Elgar’s characteristic mood, however, was introspective and lyrical rather than extroverted and dramatic. Elgar had long dreamed of writing a symphony in commemoration of the heroic death of General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum in the Sudan in 1885. Although no explicit reference to Gordon survives in the final form of the First Symphony, it is easy to hear in the music the aspects of Gordon’s character that appealed to Elgar: heroism, dignity, massive reserve, and Christian suffering.

The most striking features of the symphony, such as the mercurial changes of disposition and the nostalgia bordering on melancholy, seem to owe more to Elgar’s own temperament than to the general’s. As a friend of Richard Strauss, Strauss, Richard Elgar could be said to have written his own version of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (1897-1898; a hero’s life) Heldenleben, Ein (Strauss) in the First Symphony, although without Strauss’s swaggering and overt humor. One British critic, noting the symphony’s similarity to Strauss’s work, has remarked that “in both we see a personality struggling against opposing elements.” Unlike Strauss, however, Elgar never was confident enough to seize the opportunity to shock and outrage, nor did he adapt on a regular basis to shifts in taste, as Igor Stravinsky did. Like Gustav Mahler, his great contemporary fellow symphonist, he was drawn almost neurotically to nostalgia for a lost childhood and the expression of melancholy emotions.

Elgar completed the composition of the symphony on September 25, 1908, and dedicated the score to German conductor Hans Richter. The Halle Orchestra of Manchester gave the premiere on December 3, 1908. The symphony appeared with no specific “program,” or explanatory ideas, Elgar having given up any specific association with General Gordon. As he explained to a friend, “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” Elgar chose not to verbalize emotions that were clearly and artfully woven into his music.

The symphony’s first movement begins quietly, with a drumroll that introduces a dignified melody in A-flat major, presented first quietly, with the simplicity of a hymn tune, and then with the volume and dignity to justify Elgar’s expressive marking “nobilmente e semplice” (nobly and simply). Over an A-flat held by the basses, a new, vigorous tune in the contrasting key of D is introduced, and the remainder of the long first movement is, in a sense, a competition between the A-flat and D tunes, in which the initial A-flat tune prevails in the subdued conclusion.

The second movement, in F-sharp minor, has the effect of the traditional symphonic scherzo. The first violins play a sixteenth-note figure that will reappear in the third movement with a new rhythmic configuration; this is superseded by a brisk, marchlike figure that has an ominous quality. This, too, yields to a new passage in B-flat major in which the woodwinds chirp out a more hopeful tune. The movement ends with a sustained F-sharp that leads, without interruption, into the third movement, which is one of the finest, most reflective pieces in all of Elgar’s music and which constitutes a wistful, philosophical reflection. A drooping, nostalgic theme for the clarinets offers the most poignant moment in the entire symphony, as it efficiently distills the prevailing sense of nostalgia and regret.

It is fair to say that the final movement does not fully unify all the rich strands of the symphony. The first movement is unusually full of ideas, and the third movement achieves a level of spiritual resignation that makes the final movement seem slightly redundant, if not actually anticlimactic. The final movement begins in D minor and quickly switches to a brisk, rhythmically aggressive section, thus forming an obvious contrast to the philosophical mood of the third section. The symphony ends with an elaborate summing up of earlier thematic materials and a strong restatement of the original motto theme, in the symphony’s opening key of A-flat major.


Throughout his career, Elgar was torn between the demand for boisterous musical exercises and the nostalgic, introspective pieces he preferred. Both aspects of Elgar’s stance as a professional composer are evident in the First Symphony. Elgar learned how to pour his subjective feelings into relatively strict musical genres. As one of his most sympathetic critics, Diana McVeagh, has noted, “The symphonies are his dramas.” Although deeply attracted to the music dramas of Richard Wagner, with their long melodic lines and capacity for the leisurely exposition of philosophical ideas, Elgar retained the formal discipline of the great composers in the German symphonic tradition, such as Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák.

The symphony’s finale is complicated, containing references to earlier themes in the symphony and perhaps overly ambitious in attempting to work out the formal design according to the German symphonic tradition. Another friendly critic, Basil Maine, has noted that “Elgar often begins with a profusion of ideas and works towards their reconciliation.” Elgar had good reasons for presenting an elaborate finale: The work was his first and perhaps overdue contribution to the symphonic tradition, and Elgar, who was largely self-taught rather than formally trained, was eager to show his mastery of the form. Also, Elgar was a late Romantic composer, enjoying his most creative period at the very moment when contemporary composers were accustomed to working with massive forces. For example, Gustav Mahler, with his Symphony of a Thousand (1906-1907), and Arnold Schoenberg, with his Gurrelieder (1900-1911), were simultaneously creating works that required unusually large orchestral and choral forces. Within a few years, deliberately modernist composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and Edgard Varèse would make a point of replying to the lush, overlong late Romantic masterpieces with short, sardonic sketches.

Achieving two hundred performances in the year following its premiere, Elgar’s First Symphony obviously found a sympathetic audience in its composer’s homeland. One of Elgar’s biographers observed that “no English work had ever before received such rapturous and immediate acclaim.” Remarkably, the symphony enjoyed one hundred performances in England in the first year of its existence, with eighty-two performances around the world in 1909 alone. It was acclaimed by Hans Richter, Elgar’s sympathetic interpreter, as “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer.” Given that such great symphonic writers as Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, and Sergei Rachmaninoff were all alive and active at the time, it is easy to dismiss Richter’s compliment as partisan zeal. Yet Elgar’s First Symphony, like his other masterworks, has a distinctive voice that has kept it near the front rank of the symphonic repertory.

Through his success, Elgar inspired the next generation of English composers to write symphonies and find sympathetic audiences for them. Ralph Vaughan Williams found a way to incorporate folk tunes in his nine symphonies, and Havergal Brian proved even more industrious in his symphonic output. Two other English composers who shared Elgar’s birth year of 1857, Gustav Holst and Frederick Delius, were not drawn to writing symphonies, but they certainly profited from the way in which Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) brought new prestige to the English orchestral tradition. English composers born in the twentieth century, such as Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, likewise profited from the audience for serious orchestral and choral music that Elgar helped to create.

Elgar quickly began work on his Second Symphony (1910-1911). The Second Symphony Second Symphony (Elgar) does not enjoy the high critical esteem of the First Symphony, although it is possible that its finale is superior, as Elgar allowed his personal voice to take precedence over formal considerations. In the tone poem Falstaff (1913), Falstaff (Elgar) Elgar discovered that William Shakespeare’s fat knight was probably a more liberating role model than General Gordon had been.

Elgar collected sketches for yet another symphony, but he never got around to assembling them into a coherent work following the creative decline he experienced after the shocks of World War I and his wife’s death in 1918. Playwright George Bernard Shaw and others urged Elgar to proceed with the Third Symphony, but Elgar preferred to indulge in a new phase of his career. He concentrated on preserving performances of his great works on recordings, and he was one of the earliest of the great composers to comprehend the potential impact of the phonograph. He left deathbed instructions that no one should try to assemble the fragments of the Third Symphony into a performing version, and his wishes were long respected. In the 1990’s, however, with the permission of Elgar’s heirs, British composer Anthony Payne undertook an “elaboration” of the sketches that Elgar had collected for the symphony. The result was a successful work that received fifteen performances in the two years following its premiere. Music;symphonic Symphonic music First Symphony (Elgar)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Michael. The Life of Elgar. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Biography of Elgar draws on documents, including personal correspondence, that did not become available until the late 1970’s. Analyzes the effects of the composer’s complicated personality on his musical work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Portrait of Elgar. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1997. A substantial and sympathetic study, although largely superseded by the work of Jerrold Moore.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McVeagh, Diana. “Edward Elgar.” In The New Grove Twentieth-Century English Masters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Provides a solid, quick survey of the composer’s life and work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maine, Basil. Elgar: His Life and Works. 1933. Reprint. Bath, England: Cedric Chivers, 1973. The earliest long critical analysis of Elgar’s music, written in the twilight of Elgar’s life and overly defensive about its subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Jerrold Northrop. Edward Elgar: A Creative Life. 1984. Reprint. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1999. The authoritative life of England’s greatest composer after Purcell, sensitive to his artistic achievement and contradictory personality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, Robert, ed. Elgar to the Present Day. Vol. 2 in The Symphony. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1967. Provides a good overview of the historical development of the tradition of the symphony. Includes a good short study of Elgar by David Cox.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stasny, John, and Byron Nelson. “From Dream to Drama: The Dream of Gerontius by Newman and Elgar.” Renascence 43 (Fall, 1990/Winter, 1991): 121-135. A psychological study of Elgar’s breakthrough work, in which Elgar confronted the implications of his introversion, his Catholicism, and his admiration for General Gordon.

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Categories: History