Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Elgar: Symphony #1 in A-flat plays an interesting mathematical game with key signatures


Sir Edward Elgar wrote two big postromantic symphonies, in an orchestral style that perhaps combines British “noblimente” with Brahms’s idea of German romanticism.

The Symphony #1 in A-flat, Op. 55, completed in 1908 (about the time Mahler was finishing the Symphony of a Thousand) is in a strange key for a mainsteam symphony, as relatively few go beyond three sharps or flats to start.  The performance I have is from Bryden Thomson and the London Philharmonic on Chandos (1986), running 57 minutes, longer than usual but the tempos still sound about right.

The symphony starts in the tonic key with a famous “noble” theme, treated as if a slow introduction, but an idea that becomes a leitmotif for the whole work, as it will return to conclude the work in triumph. But what is interesting to me is that main “allegro” of the first movement is a triton away, in D Minor (mathematically half-way up the octave). This is very unusual.  But as I have explained elsewhere, I’ve experimented with the same tonal relationship in the Finale of my own third sonata.
Indeed, in the development of the first movement, Elgar intermixes back in the nobility theme (or is it “notability”) with the main allegro, sometimes contrapuntally, sometimes just sequentially. The movement comes to a quiet close in the home A-flat with the original theme.

The second movement is a somewhat famous scherzo in F# minor (one whole step lower), with a trio in B-flat (one whole step higher).



The slow movement, again with a familiar Brahmsian theme, is in the tritone D Major, as if a protagonist were living a peaceful episode of his adventurous and peripatetic life on an alien planet, in a perpetual twilight zone. There is a hint of late Mahler in the way the movement closes peacefully.

The Finale will start in the enigmatic D Minor, and have to return its light years distant key of A-flat for the triumphant close on the noble theme. It will use a relentless march motive.   Actually though, there are “warpdrive” two routes: D Major-minor, F major (relative) F Minor, A-flat.  Or, D Major, B Minor, B Major, G# Minor, enharmonic to A-flat.

The symphony was used heavily in the background score of the 1984 Warner Brothers film “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”, directed by Hugh Hudson, based on many novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This masterpiece needs to be played more often.

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