Elgar’s most undervalued work gets something of a rare performance this coming Monday, the 1st of August, at Sheffield Cathedral – Falstaff!
It is a strange fact that were it not for youth orchestras, it would be even more scarcely heard than it is and, as if to prove the point, Monday’s outing for the piece is in the company of the excellent City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra.
Dating from 1913, Elgar declared it his finest orchestral piece. Leaving aside a couple of well-known concertos, with one of them still to come when he composed Falstaff, it is certainly his most virtuosic!
Commissioned by the Leeds Festival, the composer designated the 30-plus minute work a symphonic study. Another description could be a highly programmatic symphonic poem after a Liszt, Dvořák, or Strauss.
You can’t help wondering, in fact, if he had the latter’s Till Eulenspiegel flitting through his mind when he was writing it!
Falstaff’s most famous musical incarnation is in Verdi’s last opera, but Elgar did not visualise Shakespeare’s ‘fat knight’ as an outright buffoon so steered clear of The Merry Wives of Windsor on which the opera, and those by others (Salieri, Balfe) are based.
Elgar’s character is the Falstaff of Henry IV, Parts One and Two; hence, much less a figure of fun and he outlined the course of the score in The Musical Times in 1913.
1 Falstaff and Prince Henry 2 Eastcheap – Gadshill – The Boar’s Head. Revelry and sleep – Dream interlude: Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (poco allegretto) 3 Falstaff’s March – The Return through Gloucestershire: Interlude: Gloucestershire. Shallow’s Orchard (allegretto) – The new king – The hurried ride to London 4 King Henry V’s progress – The repudiation of Falstaff, and his death
Despite the composer’s divisions, the work is continuous and, if you need reminding, Prince Henry is Prince Hal, later Henry V.