Next weekend we perform a masterpiece that is among those closest to my heart, Edward Elgar’s First Symphony. Its premiere in 1908 was probably the greatest success of Elgar’s career. His best friend and publisher, August Jaeger, described the scene at the first London performance:

 

“I never in all my experience saw the like. The hall was packed … the atmosphere was electric … after the first movement E.E. was called out; again, several times after the third, and then came the great moment. After that Finale the audience seemed to rise at E. when he appeared. I never heard such frantic applause after any novelty, or such shouting. Five times he had to appear before they were pacified. People stood up and even on their seats to get a view…”

Within a year, the work had received 82 performances, all across the globe. Elgar drolly noted in a letter to a friend: “The Symphony is making a very wild career.” Critical acclaim was universally glowing. My favorite reaction is from Elgar’s friend, Lord Northampton, who wrote to Elgar: “I hardly know what to think and certainly not what to write. That you, a mortal with whom I had just talked, had out of yourself given the world that…it is almost terrifying in its greatness.” This kind of reception for new music was just as unlikely then as it is now. So what is it about this symphony that so astonished and gripped the Edwardian world? Was it the unforgettable melodies and the sumptuous orchestration, or was there something else at play?

England, despite long being a world center for music, produced no composers of international note between Henry Purcell, who died in 1695, and Elgar, who was born in 1857; “Das Land ohne Musik,” or “The Land without Music,” as the Germans patronizingly referred to it. Elgar’s reputation was established with his”Enigma Variations” of 1899 and grew enormously after European performances of his oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” in 1900. Imagine Elgar’s pride at a dinner in his honor in Düsseldorf, when no less a composer than Richard Strauss proposed a toast to “the welfare and success of the first English progressivist, Meister Edward Elgar.” There followed a steady stream of masterpieces, but until 1908, no symphony, that most prestigious of genres. It’s an extraordinary thing to contemplate that Elgar’s First was indeed the first English symphony, ever.

When news broke that Elgar had composed a symphony, interest was so great that a miniature score was published before the first performance, allowing audiences to acquaint themselves with the music. Elgar’s fame was not just with the musical elite. He was also the composer of the Pomp and Circumstance marches (think “Land of Hope and Glory”) and other light music that enjoyed enormous popularity. Yet none of this explains audiences’ exuberant responses to the First Symphony.

The first movement opens with a long, motto theme that will recur in different guises. Its moderate pace immediately suggests a procession and its somber character has a nostalgic quality. Critics have often commented on its “Edwardian pomp.” Elgar was certainly a product of his time; he loved the glory of the British Empire at the very zenith of its power, with its domestic military displays and untouchable monarchy. But to characterize his music as jingoistic is to miss the underlying humanity and open-heartedness. For me, the feeling of this opening theme is two-fold: it’s the beginning of a long journey — we will hear it transformed into something unfathomably brilliant at the symphony’s conclusion — but it’s also a musical credo, as if Elgar is saying: “here is what is good and important in life.”

Once we’ve heard this motto theme, the main Allegro of the movement begins, with a sense of tension and passion.

The second movement is a scherzo, reversing the usual order of the middle movements in a symphony. It has a nervous quality, sometimes grandiloquent, even sinister. This alternates with a more nostalgic and sweet music that conjures images of walking through gently undulating countryside of fields and hedges in summer. In the final moments Elgar achieves a technical tour-de-force: the music slows down with a mysterious quality, leading directly into the third movement, an intimate adagio. Here the main melody is actually a slower version of the scurrying, nervous theme that began the scherzo. This has a cathartic effect: that which was upsetting is now comforting, like making up with an estranged friend.

This slow movement is the emotional heart of the symphony. A rich, life-giving melody begins in the violins, which contains all the grace and strength of Elgar’s finest music: music that encourages you to be a better person, to take a more generous view of others and the world around you. The movement ends with indescribable tenderness; even imagining the melody gives me goose bumps. On playing it through for the first time, Jaeger wrote to Elgar: “My dear friend, that is not only one of the very greatest slow movements since Beethoven, but I consider it worthy of that master…we are brought near Heaven.”

Without a break, we launch into the finale, which begins with a heavy-laden series of fragments from the first movement, before the arrival of a turbulent and belligerent theme that seems to extinguish all hope.

The final minutes of the symphony are some of my favorite in all music. I have never managed to listen to them without my eyes welling up with tears, so I’m working on my stamina as the performances approach. Whereas the belligerent theme stopped the music in its tracks previously, when it returns we flow forward into music of triumph and elation — it always reminds me of films of Superman flying over the tops of buildings at great speed. The motto theme from the very opening of the symphony returns in the trumpets and horns, no longer calm and restrained, but wildly exuberant, as the rest of the orchestra bursts in with syncopated explosions of joy that never cease to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Hearing the motto theme which began so unassumingly at the symphony’s beginning, now transformed at its end — after the passion of the first movement, the ominous mystery of the second, the love and generosity of the third, and the belligerent opposition of the finale — gives us a sense of having experienced a great deal with Elgar: a life, even. We have arrived back where we started, with the same music, but transformed. We’ve come home with a freeing sense of having survived life’s tribulations. For me, there are few moments in music that have such power and such a sense of joy, completeness, rightness and deep, deep love.

Elgar’s music often sways between tenderness and brutality, comfort and malevolence, nobility and vulgarity. In that way he had much in common with his contemporary Gustav Mahler. Both wrote symphonies that celebrate the decadence of their epoch while revealing its emptiness and predicting its decay. Both felt like outsiders despite their enormous success. In his Second and final symphony, Elgar arrived at a place of deep ambivalence, just as Mahler did in his Ninth. Just like Mahler, he longed for the past, for a simpler, less stressful world, but where Mahler’s music tends to escape into a kind of heavenly transcendence, Elgar’s often disappears down a rabbit-hole of melancholic nostalgia. He yearned to escape his ugly present just as much as we do ours. It’s this strange balancing act that makes his music so alluring. The public of 1908 was swept away by the swagger and confidence of the music. But in today’s fractured world we’re just as likely to identify with Elgar’s sense of alienation and loneliness and welcome the soothing balm and generosity of his music.

In the First Symphony, the moments of emptiness are kept in check. Elgar had not yet given up on the world, writing of the piece: “There is no programme above a wide experience of human life with a great love and a massive hope for the future.” That is, perhaps, the essence of what makes his music so irresistible.

Courtney Lewis is music director of the Jacksonville Symphony.