Owls - an Epitaph
for medium voice and piano
What is that? ... Nothing;
The leaves must fall, and falling, rustle;
That is all:
They are dead
As they fall, -
Dead at the foot of the
All that can be is said.
What is it? ... Nothing.
that? ... Nothing;
A wild thing hurt in the night,
And it cries
Till it lies
Dead at the foot of the tree;
All that can
be is said.
What is it? ... Nothing.
What is that? ... Ah!
marching slow of unseen feet,
That is all:
But a bier, spread
Is now at the foot of the tree;
All that could be is said.
Is it ... what? ... Nothing.
[ 3 pages, circa 3' 10" ]
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was born at Lower Broadheath, near Worcester
Cathedral and the Malvern Hills. In his youth, he showed a gift for keyboard
improvisation, later becoming an organist, violinist and a conductor. In
Worcester, there was a high standard of music in St. George's Roman Catholic
Church, where his father was organist, and a fine tradition at the
Cathedral, with its Three Choirs Festivals, as well as opportunities for
performance in local concerts and ready materials for study in his father's
music shop. He was largely self taught. Many of his earliest compositions
were written for the St. George's, where he succeeded his father as organist
in 1885. He kept up a supply of wind quintets for a local group in which he
was bassoonist, also polkas and quadrilles for band.
He had hoped for
study in Leipzig, but family finances did not allow it. . It is a remarkable
fact that Elgar was very largely self-taught as a composer - evidence of the
strong determination behind his original and unique genius. His long
struggle to establish himself as a pre-eminent composer of international
repute was hard and often bitter. For many years he had to contend with
apathy, with the prejudices of the entrenched musical establishment, with
religious bigotry (as a Roman Catholic minority among a Protestant majority
in England) and with a late Victorian provincial society where class
consciousness pervaded everything.
With his marriage to a student, Caroline Alice Roberts, in 1889 he began to
plan works on a scale notably more ambitious. She married him in opposition
to her family who considered that by marrying the son of a tradesman who was
a simple music teacher without prospects, she was marrying beneath station.
With dogged faith in Elgar's emerging genius, she played a vital part in the
development of his career.
It was the Enigma Variations that launched his international fame in
1899. European and American conductors were quick to recognize the quality
of the Variations, and it was in Germany that Elgar's oratorio, The Dream
of Gerontius, -- based on Cardinal Newman's poem about a soul's journey
through to its judgment and beyond -- first achieved success and praise from
Richard Strauss, but only after a premiere which was inadequately rehearsed
and poorly performed.
Major choral works was followed by orchestral music. The now well known
"Hope and Glory" from one of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches
was said by Elgar to have been " a tune like that comes once in a lifetime."
At the end of 1907, Elgar made a formal start to his First Symphony.
Its success was immediate, resulting in a hundred performances in little
more than a year after its premiere. The Austrian conductor, Arthur Nikisch,
dubbed it 'Brahms's 5th' and Elgar took his proper place in Europe's musical
tradition. This success was followed by the triumph of the Violin
Concerto in B minor in 1910, which consolidated his position among the
most significant of late-Romantic composers, one maintained by his Second
Symphony, and other works.
His sympathy for the victims of the
World War I years were summed up in the three movements of The Spirit of
England. More significant were the three chamber works of 1918-9 and,
above all, the Cello Concerto in E minor, works which were matured in
the Sussex countryside, where the Elgars had rented a cottage for many
years. Of the Cello Concerto, Elgar's biographer Ian Parrott wrote, "It is a
work apart, by a lonely man in war-time who sees that artistic criteria have
Throughout his career, Elgar produced a
notable series of part songs, pieces that show him working with equal
success on a small scale and writing as sensitively for voices as he did for
instruments, and brought him in 1890 his first contact with the publishing
house of Novello. Among these works is one to a text of his, "Owls." Such
part songs are reckoned among Elgar's finest achievements.
wife died in 1920, Elgar limited his work for a time. But what followed
included an arrangement for full orchestra Bach's Organ Fantasia and Fugue
in C minor, as well as incidental music for a play. When already over 70 in
1930, Elgar turned again to composition with apparent relish, producing the
Severn Suite for brass band, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5
and the Nursery Suite. In his final years, he was working on an
opera, a piano concerto and a third symphony, left unfinished by his death
"For thirty years after his death in 1934, his music was considered to be
'out of fashion'. It was said to epitomize the Edwardian era and to have no
relevance to a later age. I believe, however, that it is far too great to be
tied to one short period of history and that, in any case, it is music of so
personal a nature that it can be described accurately not as 'Edwardian' but
only as 'Elgarian'."[Portrait of Elgar, Michael Kennedy, Oxford
University Press, 1968]
This setting for medium voice emphasizes the strange beauty which surrounds
"nothing." The accompaniment features some sparse chords in the lower
voices, and a single decorative falling melodic line which repeats in
several guises through the song. the three strophes are not identical, but
each a variation of the former. The seeming intensification from strophe to
strophe -- moving from the dead leaves, to the "wild thing" which dies, to
the individual readied for burial -- is negated by the stillness of
"nothing" which can be said, and only noted by a foreshortening of the
text's strophic announcement of each dead "thing" -- that "thing" of
"no-thing." Is the text about grief, or about our inability to say some
worthy "thing" about death and separation. That question is left up to the
reader, to the performers, and to an audience.
The score is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial
performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement
with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.
Owls - an Epitaph