On Edward Elgar’s ‘Sospiri’…
I have recently finished Two Elegiac Pieces, two arrangements of short string orchestra pieces by Elgar for chamber ensemble. It was a project I had been meaning to finish for about three years and finally finished it last week as a distraction from pieces I really should have been writing. One of the two pieces in Two Elegiac Pieces (by the way the title is my own creation and these two pieces aren’t usually coupled together) is Sospiri, Op. 70, a short work for strings, harp and chamber organ written in 1914. This small, expressive melodrama has always appealed to me and I have always thought the work acts as an excellent microcosm of Elgar’s compositional style and voice – it might not be as powerful or rigorous as the Second Symphony or the Cello Concerto, but the emotional power, imaginative orchestration and general approach to material all bear the hallmarks of the larger and more impressive pieces.
The work begins with hushed D minor chords in the low strings and harp – nothing unusual there – but then seemingly out of nowhere the first violins enter with an E, creating a beautiful, rhapsodic minor ninth chord which sets the tone for the work. The harmony that then ensues is much more a modal D / A minor then a standard D minor – even when the first phrase appears to heading for a cadence in D it swerves off to the relative major for the next section. What perhaps makes this melody so rhapsodic is the characteristic falling seventh that Elgar uses twice in his eight bar phrase, this yearning fall has so many connotations and can’t help but sound expressively ‘English’ in some way.
The next section (bars 11 – 19) is perhaps more of the Elgar we might expect – more confident, more strident, with the harmony rooted in a chromatic Edwardian style of The Dream of Geronitus and the Enigma Variations. That being said the falling seventh is still there, punctuating the pomp with something more distant and questioning.
What happens at bar 20 is perhaps the most magical moment of Sospiri – the opening theme returns in the first violins and divided cellos, an octave lower, now accompanied by shimmering, tremolo strings, harp and organ – the effect is spine-tingling and shines a whole new light on this material. Elgar often gets high praise for his string writing and orchestration for string orchestra, and from listening to this it would be hard to disagree that this praise isn’t greatly deserved.
The work finishes with a move to F major and a much brighter, more hopeful sonority. Pieces of this period and duration would often be for the ‘lighter’ market, and the move to the relative major at the end perhaps enforces this. Sospiri certainly isn’t Elgar’s greatest work or his most memorable, but it a great work and a truly affecting piece of music. Elgar is far and away England’s greatest composer and in my opinion, it is right that he is remembered that way.