About this work
In 1908, its first year of existence, this symphony received more than 100 public performances and was widely hailed as the first great British symphony. Expansive in style and large in scale, it is nevertheless a deeply personal and in some ways enigmatic work. Elgar insisted that it had "no program beyond a wide experience of human life...and a massive hope in the future," and should be played "elastically and mystically." The music does, however, provide a glimpse of Elgar's private world of memories, feelings and places, for every note is characteristic of its creator.
The opening Andante, marked with Elgar's favorite direction of "nobilmente" (with the cautionary addition e semplice), is a solemn marching tune in the unusual key of A flat, with something of the ceremonial nature of Elgar's imperial style. This leads to a series of thematic motifs, including a brief "motto" theme that returns at various times and in various ways throughout all four movements. Some of the ideas are little more than fragments which, as the symphony develops, will go through a series of transformations, variations, and passing allusions. A peaceful episode introduced by violins is repeated by woodwinds, after which the movement becomes increasingly agitated. The march tune of the first section returns in what appears a conventional recapitulation, but here is extended into a magical meditation on earlier themes, with brilliant writing for violins, violas, and harps gradually spreading over the whole orchestra until the motto theme returns in triumph on horns and trumpets.
The second movement starts with typical Elgarian swagger, followed by a quieter section scored with wonderful airiness and freedom. When conducting the work the composer asked the orchestra to play it "like something you hear down by the river." Wisps of melody create an atmosphere of enchantment; but mysterious changes start to occur. These herald the tranquil third movement, Lento, which the conductor Hans Richter (to whom the symphony is dedicated) called "an Adagio such as Beethoven might have written." Marked Espressivo e dolce, this is perhaps, the finest of all Elgar's slow movements -- a sustained pastoral reverie evoking the Herefordshire countryside that the composer knew and loved.
The fourth movement sees a return of the restless spirits, this time with haunting undertones. The ghostly atmosphere is dispelled by the marching theme of the first movement, propelled with gathering momentum towards the final bars in which violins and brass leap exultantly about in giddy cross rhythms before the orchestra unites to assert the "massive hope" that lies at the heart of the work.