Elgar’s ‘War Requiem’

An unfairly neglected Elgar masterpiece, The Spirit of England, is on the programme at the next concert in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 4th of November.

Why the work occupies peripheral status in the composer’s output is something of a mystery.

First performed complete in 1917, hence written during the First World War which it reflects, it has been suggested that the reason for its scarcity of outings is that it is only really suitable for performance around Remembrance weekend – rubbish!

You might as well say that about Britten’s War Requiem, a soubriquet that has attached itself to Elgar’s work, although its starting point is completely different.

Coincidentally or not, however, the performance in Sheffield takes place a week before it!

A three-movement work for soprano, chorus and orchestra, each is a setting of a poem from Laurence Binyon’s anthology of verse The Winnowing Fan published in late 1914: ‘The Fourth of August’, ‘To Women’ and ‘For the Fallen’.

The first depicts the optimism and sense of adventure as Britons sailed to Europe at the outset of the war. The second, the horrors of the very quick stark reality and heavy loss of life and the third, the tragic realism of the need for sacrifice if victory is to be achieved.

The second and third movements were premiered in May 1916, but Elgar was in a quandary over the first. Some of Binyon’s words were harsh towards the German nation and he felt a lasting debt of thanks towards it for championing his earlier works.

Realising that it had changed beyond redemption as he lived through the conflict, he eventually resolved his dilemma by quoting music from the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius.

Summed up, after the patriotic strains of the first movement, Elgar’s work captures the desolation and sorrow around him with a fair amount of poignancy, especially in the second movement, without becoming mawkish and with often subtle, under-appreciated inspiration.

He abridged and reworked the last movement for chorus and orchestra as With Proud Thanksgiving for the unveiling of the cenotaph in London in 1920, but it was not used.

Three other highly attractive works make up the concert given by the Hallé, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and regularly raved about soprano Elizabeth Atherton who also gets to sing Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, penned 30 years after the Elgar!

Should you not know it, it’s an evocative setting of excerpts from James Agee’s childhood memories in a short prose poem in Knoxville, Tennessee seen through the eyes of a child.

Barber described it as a “lyric rhapsody,” which is about right!

The chorus, meanwhile, has Vaughan Williams’ magnificent setting of Walt Whitman’s Toward the Unknown Region to itself with the Hallé and conductor James Burton who begin the concert with Arnold Bax’s Cornish symphonic poem Tintagel.

With good reason, the composer’s most regularly heard work, but it does rather cast a dense shadow over equally fine, ignored pieces that he wrote.


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