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Froissart – Overture
Though not often heard, the overture Froissart, foreshadows the mature Elgar who was gradually to emerge in the 1890s. Success seemed all but assured, however, when Elgar and his wife, Alice moved from the Midlands to London in 1889. And although the move from the provinces denoted a degree of self-confidence on Elgar’s part, he had still not, at the age of 32, written anything of sustained originality. By March 1890 Edward and Alice had moved to 51 Avonmore Road, Kensington, and it was there that Froissart was begun, 6 April. The invitation to compose had come, ironically perhaps, given the Elgars’ move to the capitol, from the Three Choirs Festival, the famous music festival that takes place every three years alternately in Hereford, Gloucester, and Worcester (Elgar’s home town), and for which he had played as a violinist (notably under Dvořák in Worcester in 1884).
The choice of subject matter for this early work may reflect a projection of confidence. Although the work is not strictly programmatic, it is named after Jean Froissart (c.1337-c.1405), whose Chronicles have been recognised as the ‘chief expression of the chivalric revival of the 14th-century Kingdom of England and France’. As with many another work of Elgar’s it is prefaced by a motto, this time by Keats:
Lifted up her lance on high.
Froissart begins with a flourish that could justifiably be described as ‘chivalric’ before settling into one of those Elgar themes that commentators (and Elgar himself) regularly characterise as ‘nobilmente’. The 15-minute work contains four identifiable themes governed by a somewhat loose and rhapsodic adherence to a sonata structure. Some commentators have pointed out this early work’s formal weaknesses, but the violinist W. H. ‘Billy’ Reed, later to write a book of perceptive reminiscences about Elgar, pointed out ‘the wonderful clarity of the scoring, the knowledge displayed of the tonal values of the instruments and the infallibly right placing and distribution of the notes of the various chords.’
After completing the work Elgar made several attempts to find a publisher for the work, first Novello’s, then Messrs Goodwin and Tabb, until Novello’s agreed to publish it. Elgar himself conducted the work on 3 September. But after the winter of 1890-91, he felt defeated by London and he and Alice and their 10-month daughter, Carice, took up a house in Malvern.
Elgar did not have cause to be downhearted for long. His cantata The Black Knight was produced on 18 April 1893 by the Worcester Festival Choral Society. 1896 saw first performances of The Light of Life (Lux Christi) at the Three Choirs Festival, and of Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf during the North Staffordshire Festival at Hanley. Olaf was repeated at the Crystal Palace on 3 April 1897, and a little over two weeks later, Elgar’s Imperial March, composed for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, was performed there. The Queen herself accepted the dedication of Caractacus, which Elgar conducted on 5 October 1898. And this crescendo of success culminated in the Enigma Variations of 1899. For Elgar the 1890s had a noble trajectory.
Gordon Kalton Williams © 2011
This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International (http://symphonyinternational.net/). Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see: