Elgar gem rediscovered
Nov 25 2009 By Christopher Morley
Christopher Morley reviews a rediscovered Elgar rarity.
Though he signed up as a volunteer special constable at the start of the First World War, Elgar was already distraught at the carnage.
He was appalled when Land of Hope and Glory, A.C. Benson’s words set to the trio melody of his first Pomp and Circumstance March, became almost a jingoistic second national anthem.
Yet he did compose various pieces to help the war effort, to boost morale and to raise funds for war-related charities: the recitation for voice and orchestra Carillon was followed by Une Voix dans le Desert and Le Drapeau Belge. There was also the orchestral potpourri Polonia, evanescent ballet The Sanguine Fan, and the Laurence Binyon choral trilogy The Spirit of England, which received its first complete performance in Birmingham Town Hall on October 4, 1917.
There were smaller works, too, but a major composition which has eluded recognition for almost a century has recently resurfaced, receiving its first totally professional recording since the composer’s original in 1917.
This is The Fringes of the Fleet, four poems by Rudyard Kipling set for four baritones (one leading, the rest accompanying) and orchestra. Its subject is the vessels and seamen not part of the mainstream Royal Navy – the submarines, the merchant vessels pressed into service, and the valour of their crews.
Elgar set these texts in what he himself described as a “broad, salt-water style”, and his music managed to combine sensitive introspection with swaggering, memorable shanty-style melodies alongside more sombre elements.
There is at times a Dad’s Army spirit, such as in The Lowestoft Boat, whose “mate was skipper of a chapel in Wales, And so he fights in topper and tails”, and whose cook “was chef in the Lost Dog’s home”.
The Sweepers is a vivid picture of minesweepers at work, complete with clanging bells marking the changes of the watches with “Mines located in the fairway, Boats now working up the chain”.
The most striking of these four settings is Submarines, an eerie evocation of a giant, slow-moving mechanical leviathan in the perilous depths. There is something chilling in this music, sinister and otherworldly, enhanced by the distant, grating sound of sandpaper blocks being rubbed together to convey subterranean noises.
This is Elgar’s sea-music at its most characteristic of the composer. Not for him the surging, glinting waves of Debussy, Bax, Bridge, Rimsky-Korsakov and others: he was more fascinated by the movement of vessels purposefully through the waters, as evoked in the “***” Variation in Enigma and in parts of the Sea Pictures.
Fringes of the Fleet was planned as the centrepiece of a twice-daily wartime variety show at the London Coliseum, with Elgar himself conducting. The four singers wore seafaring costume – sou’westers, sea-boots, cable jerseys and the rest – and played the part of old salts.
The principal baritone was a favourite of Elgar’s, Charles Mott, whose presence made a considerable contribution to the success of the enterprise, which was premiered on June 11, 1917. Originally planned for a two-week run, the performances were extended well into the summer, when Elgar and his colleagues had to cope with an intense heatwave.
By this time Mott had been called up (he was to be killed in France less than a year later), so his part was occasionally sung by another performer. It is Mott, however, who leads the singers on the recording of Fringes made under Elgar’s baton on July 4, 1917.
Plans had been made to tour the production, but now Rudyard Kipling was cooling towards the idea.
Any patriotic fervour he had felt was dissolved by the disappearance of his son during the battle of Loos, and he was in no mood for his poems to be hawked round music-halls.
The enterprise was dropped, relations between composer and poet became frosty (though a year later Elgar did set Kipling’s Big Steamers for Teacher’s World) and Elgar turned more and more to the world of chamber-music. Fringes was all but forgotten.
In the 1980s Barry Collett conducted a recording featuring the semi-professional Rutland Sinfonia (and including baritone Russell Watson) for a disc of Elgar’s war music on the Pearl label, but it was only earlier this year that a fully professional recording was made.
Conducted by Tom Higgins, who compiled a performing edition after exhaustive study of various manuscripts and Elgar’s own recording, the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra (founded by the irreplaceable Vernon Handley) delivers a stirring, colourful and sonorous account on the SOMM label.
Leading the singers is Warwickshire-based baritone Roderick Williams, one of the very finest exponents of this kind of music, and there is a nautical, patriotic thread running through the rest of the release: John Ansell’s overtures Plymouth Hoe and The Windjammer, Inside the Bar for four unaccompanied baritones, which Elgar added to Fringes, Big Steamers (Elgar’s setting arranged for four unaccompanied baritones by Tom Higgins), also in Edward German’s setting, two John Ireland songs in Higgins’ orchestrations. Elgar’s Elegy for Strings, and A Manx Overture and March: Elizabeth of England by Haydn Wood.
This is a release which will appeal to all Elgarians, anyone interested in life on at the time of the First World War, and many more besides (SOMMCD 243).