Monday 18 December 2017

Elgar and the love song without words

Edward Elgar, whose birthday fell this week, is the quintessential English composer. His stirring Pomp and Circumstance marches conjure images of the Royal Albert Hall and the last night of the Proms.

When it was Cup Final day at the old Wembley, and the pre-match entertainment consisted of what was known as "community singing", a gentleman in a white suit would conduct the crowd. Some 100,000 voices belting out 'Land of Hope and Glory' was a sound to behold.

But the Swinging Sixties brought the birth of the football chant, and that was the end of that. Elgar's imperialistic music retreated to the concert hall, where they still get great value out of joining in.

So it may come as a surprise to discover that the man behind one of the sweetest love songs, albeit one without words, is that master of rousing music, Edward Elgar.

'Salut d'Amour (Love's Greeting)' was conceived as an engagement present. Elgar was to marry Caroline Alice Roberts, a lady eight years his senior. His occupation as a musician, not to mention his Roman Catholic religion, did not go down well with Caroline's middle-class English family, and they cut her off.

From the music, you can tell how much in love with her he was. Elgar originally put its title in German -- 'Liebesgruss' -- as Caroline was fluent. The dedication he wrote in French -- to Carice, a combination of both her names -- and when their only child, a daughter, was born, that was what they called her.

'Salut d'Amour' was composed as a drawing-room piece for violin and piano, and this simple treatment of the wonderfully tender and at the same time poignant melody is most effective. There's a lovely version by Tasmin Little with John Lenehan on a Classics for Pleasure CD called Tchaikovski-ana (72435-8561524).

A piece like this, though, is going to inspire a variety of treatments, and it's particularly sumptuous when arranged for orchestra. The depth and subtlety of the harmonic possibilities can be fully explored by the additional instrumental parts.

At the 60th birthday gala of the great English ballerina Margot Fonteyn, she performed a specially commissioned piece recalling the roles her choreographer Frederick Ashton had created for her. The orchestra played 'Salut d'Amour'.

Fonteyn's ballet led the audience through the gamut of a lover's emotions. Towards the end, Ashton joined her, and danced her off into the wings. It was the perfect marriage of music and dance, and it brought the house down.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE lyric fm from 9.30 every Saturday morning.

Irish Independent

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