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Owls - an Epitaph - (2007)    

Edward Elgar

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 tree;
All that can be is said.
What is it? ... Nothing.

What is that? ... Nothing;
A wild thing hurt in the night,
And it cries
In its dread,
Till it lies
Dead at the foot of the tree;
All that can be is said.
What is it? ... Nothing.

What is that? ... Ah!
A marching slow of unseen feet,
That is all:
But a bier, spread
With a pall,
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

 

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 altered irreversibly."

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.

When his 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 in 1934.

 

"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