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A composer’s first symphony is important. Some put it off for decades, overshadowed by other writers and their former glories.
Brahms was one such, taking more than fourteen years to offer up his first. Elgar spent a full ten years ruminating on his Symphony No.1, but its arrival, on 3 December 1908 in Manchester, was greeted with an unprecedented response. ‘An immediate and phenomenal success,’ reported the Musical Times. It soon went on to garner around a hundred performances over the following year.
The composer had intended to make this a ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ tribute symphony (see The Dream of Gerontius) but, on publication of the score, insisted this plan had gone by the wayside and that his Symphony No.1 had ‘No programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future’.
By way of a little aside, Elgar’s is pretty much the only symphony of note written in the key of a flat. It could be that one of the reasons for this is that it is not the ideal key for playing in, particularly not for the fiddlers – something of which Elgar, as a violinist, would have been well aware.
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vernon Handley (conductor). lPO: lPO0046.
Illustration: Mark Millington