The Piano Tuner’s Son

The stiff, shy, blinking man in a norfolk suit:
The martinet: the gentle-minded squire:
The piano-tuner’s son from Worcestershire:
The Edwardian grandee: how did they consort

In such luxuriant themes?

—Cecil Day-Lewis

If you had asked me, I certainly would not have thought this Rondo was composed by Edward Elgar.

Born in 1857 near Worcester, England, Elgar was the fourth of seven children. His father was a piano tuner, owned a music store, and was also a professional violinist.

Elgar was largely self-taught. He learned German in hopes of furthering his violin studies at Leipzig Conservatory, but his father was unable to afford to send him. He took up a position as a clerk at a local solicitor’s office which he quickly abandoned for a musical career.

Elgar and his father were both active members of the Worcester Glee Club, where Elgar received his introduction to conducting. His first post as a conductor was at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum. The band was made up by attendees, and Elgar wrote music to suit the odd mix of instruments. He also served as professor of violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.

In 1880 Elgar took his first trip abroad to Paris; he traveled to Leipzig two years later. During his trips he took every opportunity to attend concerts of top rate orchestras, where he heard works by Schumann, Brahms and Wagner. Schumann became a fast favorite. [cite]

Elgar completed Symphony No. 2 in E♭ major, Op. 63, in 1911. The work premiered in London that year with the composer conducting. Elgar called the work “the passionate pilgrimage of the soul. It was his last completed symphony. [cite]

Elgar told close friends that the symphony represented everything that had happened to him from April 1909 to February 1911, from the people he was with and the places he visited. During this time, Elgar visited Venice where he admired St. Mark’s Basilica and its square, which, he later explained, inspired the opening of the Larghetto movement. Later in this period, he visited Tintagel in Cornwall in the southwest of England . . . . These events explain the words “Venice and Tintagel” inscribed at the bottom of Elgar’s score.

Another known inspiration for the piece is the poem “Song” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the last poems published before his death in 1822:

Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
‘Tis since thou art fled away. [cite]

Listening List

Elgar, Symphony No. 2 in E-Flat, Op. 63 (1911)
(Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko conducting)

David Nice assesses recordings of Elgar’s Symphony No. 2:

Bonus Track: Alexander Glazunov, Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat Major (1906), Op. 83: III. Scherzo. Allegro · The State Academic Symphony Orchestra, Evgeny Svetlanov

Elgar and Glazunov were friends, and he’d likely have been aware of this Glazunov scherzo, so interesting to listen to Elgar’s Rondo and Glazunov’s Scherzo side-by-side. (With thanks to David Nice for this suggested comparison.)

—with thanks to David Nice for introducing me to this symphony, and for many other gifts of music from his symphony class.


The Cecil Day-Lewis quotation at the head of the post is from Day-Lewis’s poem, “Edward Elgar (1857-1934),” pp. 180-182 in Edward Elgar and the Nostalgic Imagination, By Senior Lecturer in Music Matthew Riley. [cite]

4 thoughts on “The Piano Tuner’s Son

  1. David Nice

    Aren’t I daft, I hadn’t thought to check on YouTube for that stunning Proms performance by our guest. Sounds great – unlike the Building a Library, where Andrew McGregor and I sound a bit helium-filled. But thank you for finding all these. I actually think the landscapes figure little, and it’s all inner, at least in the first and third movements. ‘The passionate pilgrimage of a soul’ sums it up nicely, and the ‘spirit of delight’ quotation – in which it’s clear that the point about that delight is how rare it is.

    So good to see you blogging again, anyway.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Well, that was a lucky find–glad to have stumbled on it! Yes, landscape (aside from inner landscape) isn’t really characteristic of Symphony #2, for all the reasons you’ve noted here and in class. Interesting to read the whole of Cecil Day-Lewis’s poem. I doubt he had Symphony #2 so much on his mind, but I do love his poetic depiction of Elgar. So, I look forward to a second listen to the Elgar portion of the class shortly, and then onward to the coming weeks’s classes. (Blogging will continue only very occasionally; in this case, I wanted to make sure I had these Symphony 2 resources easily at hand.)

  2. David Nice

    I’ve decided to pursue the Beethoven and Brahms links in second movement and finale respectively at the beginning of next week’s class before segueing to Sibelius – it’s extraordinary to think that Elgar 2 and Sibelius 4 were both premiered in 1911, along with Petrushka and Daphnis et Chloe…

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