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Inside the Music: Noble Ideals

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra makes its final visit this season to Colston Hall with music of unrivalled passion.

Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal is built from huge blocks of sound, the music ebbing and flowing, building up the tension as the composer prepares us for his epic Arthurian tale of a hero’s search for the grail. Schumann’s Piano Concerto, both tempestuous and lyrical, is a love song to his beloved wife Clara, while Elgar’s Symphony No. 2 was written in the shadow of the death of King Edward VII – a noble, heart-rending work that stands as one of the 20th century’s great symphonic achievements.

10 things you didn’t know about… Elgar

  • Elgar had a fascination with chemistry and would conduct experiments in his cellar laboratory which he called ‘the ark’. He successfully made hydrogen sulphide and soap.
  • 65 roads in the UK are named after Elgar.
  • Elgar was a keen football supported, and would cycle from Worcester to Wolverhampton to watch his beloved Wanderers.
  • Elgar’s called his bike ‘Mr Phoebus’ – it was a top-of-the-range Royal Sunbeam.
  • The Elgars couldn’t afford ready-lined manuscript paper, so the composer’s wife, Alice, drew it all up for him.
  • Elgar suffered from acute depression and mentioned suicide more than once.
  • As a young man, Elgar was bandmaster of the Attendant’s Orchestra at Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum and wrote polkas and quadrilles for the patients to dance to.
  • One of his favourite pastimes was flying kites on the Malvern Hills.
  • One of Elgar’s librettists was called Pietro d’Alba who was, in fact, Elgar himself. The pseudonym was inspired by his daughter’s pet white rabbit.
  • In 1917, in the midst of World War One, Elgar wrote ‘Submarines’, a song bemoaning the dangers of the then newly invented underwater vessels.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy  on Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Schumann’s use of leitmotif

Listen out for… 5 key moments

  1. Prelude to Parsifal

The ‘Dresden’ Amen that appears for the first time at five minutes into the prelude – a rising musical phrase made up of just nine rising notes – is a potent symbol of the opera as an allegory for the hero’s spiritual journey.

Schumann Piano Concerto, first movement
One of the beautiful versions of the concerto’s leitmotif occurs in the first movement is when it comes back in the major key. Normally presented in a minor key,  listen carefully for how this variation casts a dialogue between the piano and other solo instruments.

Schumann Piano Concerto, final movement
From the start, the piano and orchestra constantly wrong-foot each other, as the rhythm constantly shifts, like the playful quarrelling of two people in love. Schumann’s wife Clara was a superb pianist and a fine composer in her own right.

Elgar Symphony No. 1, opening movement
Listen carefully to the theme right at the start as it pops up in various forms again and again throughout the rest of the symphony. Elgar described it as ‘simple and, in intention, noble & elevating… the sort of ideal call – in the sense of persuasion, not coercion or command – and something above every day and sordid things.’

Elgar Symphony No. 1, final movement
In the final few minutes of this wonderful work, the theme appears one last time above an accompaniment that rises and falls, swoops and wheels, orchestrated, as one critic wrote, ‘with glittering splendour’.

Hidden beauty in Romantic rhetoric

Opera would never be the same after Richard Wagner. In his eyes, his musical dramas were ‘artworks of the future’ which placed huge demands on both the singers and the audiences. Anyone coming to watch the Ring cycle, the composer suggested, should prepare for the experience during a long period of reflection. This was serious art appreciation.

But underneath all of Wagner’s pompous rhetoric lies some of the most beautiful and captivating music ever written. Arias and recitatives, the mainstay of all opera before Wagner, had suddenly been replaced by long mellifluous, unbroken lines of singing, punctuated with ‘leitmotifs’ or short musical signposts that alerted the audience to various characters or themes.

Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, premiered in 1882, is arguably the greatest of the composer’s music dramas. The plot tells the story of Parsifal who is tasked with retrieving the Holy Spear and returning it to the Grail castle. Along the way, the opera deals with the themes of redemption, forgiveness and temptation, giving the work a quasi-religious tone. Wagner called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel or stage consecration festival play, intending it to be not a Christian opera, but an opera about Christianity.

And, as such, the score often has a liturgical feel, with its chants and processional music – at its heart (and which you’ll hear early on in the Prelude) lies the ‘Dresden Amen’, a simple rising motif. The music from then on is yearning and expectant – not in the idealised sexual fashion of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde but in the way that Wagner sets us on a musical journey towards redemption.

Written a full 26 years after Parsifal, Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 actually sounds from an earlier era. But listen closely and you’ll hear echoes of Wagner in the sweeping orchestrations, although Elgar preferred the rigid structures of Brahms and Haydn to Wagner’s more free-flowing style. From the start of the symphony, Elgar the great melodist is hard at work, with one of his greatest themes presented expansively from the opening. And it’s this theme that comes and goes throughout the work, making a grand appearance in the final few minutes in one of the composer’s most astonishing orchestral passages.

The symphony was performed more than 100 times throughout Europe and England in its first season alone and was championed by many of the early 20th-century’s greatest conductors, including Arthur Nikisch, who said of it: ‘As Brahms’s First Symphony had been greeted as Beethoven’s “Tenth”, so Elgar’s First advanced the symphony tradition as Brahms’s “Fifth”’.

Schumann might have written some of the most significant repertoire for the piano, including Papillons, Fantasiestücke and Kinderszenen but the 19th-century German composer wrote just one piano concerto. Dedicated to the conductor Ferdinand Hiller and premiered by the composer’s wife Clara, it was originally penned as a one-movement Concerto Fantasy for piano and orchestra, and extended into a full concerto four years later. Clara must have been an exceptionally fine pianist – Schumann’s soaring concerto demands huge technical skill, but also a musician that can successfully showcase its constant mood changes, from elegance to stateliness.

Further listening

Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Tristan of Isolde

The prelude to Wagner’s operatic hymn to unconditional love contains the ‘Tristan chord’, one of the turning points in Western classical music. All of a sudden, Wagner had anticipated Impressionism with this wonderful tonally ambiguous chord.

Recommended recording: Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon E4390222)

Elgar: Symphony No. 2

Ambitiously orchestrated, Elgar’s Second Symphony doesn’t let up from the opening bar. At its soulful heart lies the shattering Larghetto, a funeral march to the memory of the late King Edward VII.

Recommended recording: The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder (Hallé CDHLL7507)

Words by Oliver Condy