I’ve been currently working on Elgar’s Sonata, amongst others, for my next project which involves a ton of research upon the influence and the context of the composition, and more pivotally of THE COMPOSER.
Why do I do it?
Because music is much more than just a collection of tones and sounds. As one of the world’s most renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim often remarked: it is a conception of life.
That said, today we’ll investigate where Elgar may have obtained some of the ideas for his sonata from and the parallel between one another.
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As a composer who survived the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Elgar was apparently rich in his source of musical idioms that were often borrowed from many of his contemporaries. Below is an excerpt of the 1st movement from the sonata:
This movement is written in a 2/2 form. Now, I’d like you to pay close attention to what’s happening from the second bar onward of that system. From there, we have two main narratives that are moving in synchrony and using the same punctuation. Although they’re different rhythms, you can see that each one mildly follows the shape of its counterpart as if to bow or nod in agreement.
However, take a look at the way the slurs divide the notes of each narrative into groups. In the first two bars, the slurs are placed over the three pulses after the rest on the head of each bar, and then the slurs begin a pulse earlier in the next two bars. Moreover, the accents put on the violin part coincides with the start of each slur, which serves its outcome to disguise in 3/2 or 3/4 time. We call this particular phenomenon “Hemiola” (whose etymology is said to be an ancient Greek word). This is where Brahms comes in, because although he wasn’t the first one to discover the idiom, no one ever used it more frequently than he did in our standard repertoire.
There are a few patterns in which this event happens and I’ll feed you with some of those examples; in the 1st movement of Brahms 4th Symphony in E Minor (the same key as Elgar’s sonata, whether it was the inspiration to him is yet uncertain) written in a 2/2 form (again, it’s unclear if that is a mere coincidence) is a passage where, alongside the melody, syncopated counter-voices mingle in with an accent on each minim [half note]. The value of these notes are equal to ♩×2, so it doesn’t generate the effect of souding in any other form. But because of the
accents, the 2nd and the 4th beat sounds as if they were the downbeats, which in my view makes it a trigger for music to get driven forward rather than being steadily progressing. Of course, depending upon how they see this feature, some conductors may wish to interpret this as something that holds it back which is the opposite of my way of thinking, but it’s certainly not an invalid idea. And here’s what’s even more interesting: the lower strings have quavers (eighth notes) whose slurs are put across the bar-line just like the other parts with ties. That means, those quavers naturally have to carry on through the bar-line in a seemless motion, and this works almost perfectly as comouflage for listeners that there isn’t any bar-line to begin with even though there is, but instead it’s a single big bar combined from what were originally two separate bars. It’s highly illusive and paradoxical, and deceives the ears of people who don’t know or aren’t used to hearing much of this musical style.
Let me show you another example from the Finale of the Symphony; in the score on the left there are two opposing movements – if we see the higher strings as somehow the “statement”, every other part becomes the “response” to them. Or we could see the former as America, the latter Russia to put it metaphorically,
either way you get the point. The smallest unit we can divide these movements is in (=♩×2) to which the pattern fits in. As with the first example, there are two ways of managing this: on one hand, although this Finale begins in a 3/4 form, when the appears all of a sudden it goes into a 2/4 time temporarily divorced from the Passacaglian mode. This way seems to give it psychologically a sort of resistance to the opposite force which is the flowing nature of music. On the other hand, there’s a sense of 3/2 or 3/4 virtually when you treat those two bars as a single whole with the ties functioning as a bridge between them, which provides a feeling of the triangle stretched out bigger and wider. This is the essence of Hemiolaic personality. The same thing goes with the example on the right.
If all these tricks were rather intentional, surely Brahms could have offered a new pulse for the bars in question independent from the original one using more straightforward notation, – like Bartók or Shostakovich did. But he chose NOT to. It’s one of the most palpable instance to find him strive to remain consistent with the traditional style of composition (as observed throughout the entire work) infused with his own lyricism and creative imagination. Rapid pulse changing like that would destroy the stylistic classicism altogether.
Now back to the Elgar Sonata – the commonality with Brahms in all of those examples is that the slurs or ties are always made over the bar-line so as to pull the music out of its pattern and constitute an expansive, variant frame with a deleted sense of bar-line. Elgar seems to have taken a very similar approach. It’s an amazing paradox that the Hemiola passage can sound in a 3/2 or 3/4 time rather than 2/2 AND can sound a prolonged version of the original pulse in a single bar at the same time. The following four bars after the phrase is the part which responds to it likewise with another Hemiola but in reversed roles. This entire section is a crucial part of the process because the phrase is repeated several times in order to build up the tension higher and higher while finding the way back to the principal theme in the entrance.
One may wonder, “which one in this passage outweighs the other, the violin or the piano?” – In my personal view, the answer is neither. Without the existence of America, today we’d have lived in a communist world. And without the existence of Russia, we’d have lived in an autocratic Nazi world. Were there be no supply of natural gas from Russia, then there’d be no economic support from America. Two of the biggest nations on earth hold strong belief in their own identities and are yet unable to complete themselves without constantly depending upon each other. There are a lot of scenes in a piece of music where at least two parties develop a contrapuntal interaction simultaneously; in such scene, each of them has the right to express itself in its entirety but never do so in the absence of the other to compensate, oppose and counterbalance. It’s too bad that today our society has conditioned the majority to see things from only one perspective and to operate from the mindset that someone’s gain is a result made out of another’s sacrifice. The right question to ask is not “which one is more important than the other” but instead “how can we let two individuals coexist and bring out the merits of each proportionately?” And only then one will begin to pay more attention to the other and realize one’s own responsibility in all seriousness.
It’s just over 1,000 words right here, and although I digressed a little towards the end I hope this helped you understand Elgar’s writing partially if not more and motivated you to learn further about it in later days. I’ll be delivering more stuff.