These few observations are by no means intended to be a comprehensive exploration of the subject, but rather an introduction, with particular reference to three songs by Edward Elgar to be performed in the forthcoming concert in Doncaster given by Ensemble Morfeo.
Like to a Damask Rose, Queen Mary’s Song, and The Shepherd’s Song are all early works, preceeding the Choral masterpieces and Oratorios that were to forge Elgar’s reputation in his lifetime. They provide an interesting insight into the preoccupations of the composer as he was honing his craft and finding his musical path.
Born in 1857, Elgar left school at the age of 15, thereby ending his formal academic tuition. Having left the local solicitor’s office where he was first employed upon leaving school, Elgar worked in his father’s music shop in Worcester, and it was here that he continued to self-educate reading voraciously from the volumes and treatises in the shop, and having occasional violin lessons in London with Adolf Pollitzer. Elgar took an active part in the musical life of Worcester, in the Glee Club, playing the organ at St George’s Church, playing violin in the Worcester and Birmingham festivals, and teaching. It was Elgar’s mother Alice who encouraged his love of literature and as early as 10 years old he wrote music for a play written and acted by the Elgar children, which forty years later with just some minor changes was orchestrated and became the suites titled The Wand of Youth. Elgar’s yearning to widen his horizons was always evident and although he never achieved his ambition of going to Leipzig to study violin, in the 1880’s he began to travel overseas starting with Paris, and in 1892 Elgar and his wife spent some time in Germany which seemed to have have prompted the completion of a number of songs on his return, including Like to a Damask Rose.
During his lifetime Elgar was to work with a wide variety of librettists ranging from his own wife Alice, to journalists, religious authors, and poets including Tennyson and Longfellow. The critic Ernest Newman was rather dismissive of his efforts claiming that
“Elgar has never shone as a song writer. Original enough in many other respects, in the song he has mostly been content to work along the ordinary English lines and traffic in the ordinary English sentiments.”(i)
Elgar’s text was probably chosen to appeal to his market – as Newman goes on to acknowledge – and in these three works Elgar can be seen to be embracing nineteenth century themes of love, loss, nature, and Man’s mortality. This period of Elgar’s life marks the time that he moves from obscurity to fame by way of some intensely discouraging moments. From life as a provincial musician he attempts to find success in London. The kernels of the outward certainty and inward despondency that become such characteristics of his later works can be heard here, both in his choices of text and in his musical settings, and in this respect even these early works show Elgar to be writing in a very European tradition.
Like to a Damask Rose was completed in 1892, and first performed in London at St James’s Hall, on February 25th in 1897 by the baritone Charles Phillips. In later years singers such as Marie Brema and Muriel Foster were to become synonomous with certain works of Elgar and yet Thomas F. Dunhill records that Elgar did not always hold singers in very high esteem.
“One day during my visit Elgar brought forth a huge autograph book (with ruled staves on the pages) in which I was asked to write some bars of my score. What has become of this book I do not know, but since it contained important passages in the handwriting of every modern composer of distinction in the world, which must have taken many years to collect, it should be valuable. He was furious, I remember, because a number of well-known vocalists had put their names in it, without being asked to do so. “Those damned singers,” he said, “they’ve spoilt the book!”(ii)
It would appear however that Elgar maintained friendly relations with Charles Phillips as he noted in his diary that he attended his wedding in 1899.(iii)
Like to a Damask Rose
Like to the damask rose you see,
Or like a blossom on a tree,
Or like a dainty flow’r of May,
Or like the morning of the day
Or like the sun, or like the shade,
Or like the gourd which Jonas had, E’en such is man whose thread is spun, Drawn out and cut, and so is done.
The rose withers, the blossom blasteth, The flower fades, the morning hasteth, The sun sets, the shadow flies,
The gourd consumes – the man he dies!
Like to the grass that’ s newly sprung, Or like a tale that’ s new begun,
Or like a bird that’s here today,
Or like the pearled dew of May,
Or like an hour, or like a span,
Or like the singing of a swan,
E’en such is man – who lives by breath,
Is here, now there, in life and death.
The grass withers, the tale is ended,
The bird is flown, the dew’ s ascended; The hour is short, the span not long;
The swan’ s near death, Man’ s life is done!
This text has been attributed to Simon Wastell (1560-1635) an English Biblical Scholar and writer who was Headmaster of the Free School at Northampton. In 1623 he published a translation of John Shaw’s Biblii Summula entitled A True Christians Daily Delight. A second enlarged edition was published in 1629, and it is this edition which contained four blank pages at the end of the volume with two poems of a significantly different style to Wastell’s previous verses. The first Upon the image of Death is usually attributed to Robert Southwell and is included in his Maeoniae
(1636) (iv) The other, Of Mans Mortalitie, from where the text of the Damask Rose derives is sometimes assigned to Francis Quarles.(v)
The powerful Jacobean theme of the briefness of life with the thread drawn and cut is succintly presented, with the allegorical reference of the gourd of Jonas rotting and consuming, and the reference to the swan singing at death (for an earlier example see Orlando Gibbons The Silver Swan) providing Elgar with moments of heightened harmonic intensity and dramatic rhetoric. This is reflected particularly effectively in the treatment of the opening solo piano motif as it undergoes dynamic transformation throughout the song and marks the sections, ending the dialogue.
Queen Mary’ s Song
Hapless doom of woman happy in betrothing,
Beauty passes like a breath and love is lost in loathing: Low! My lute:
Speak low, speak low my lute, but say the world is nothing. Low! lute, Low!
Love will hover round the flowers when they first awaken; Love will fly the fallen leaf, and not be overtaken;
Low, my lute!
O low, O low my lute! we fade and are forsaken,
Low; dear lute, low!
Tennyson’s (vi) first foray into poetic drama (Queen Mary, published 1875) provided Elgar with another scenario despairing in its sense of woe and impending doom, this time over a broken heart. This type of drama was a new direction for Tennyson, and his “Lute Song” explores the style of the Renaissance to early Baroque with its strophic form. Elgar’s tender vocal line mournfully sings to the “lute”, the gently supportive arpeggiated piano part, which offers a slight resistance with its momentary fp chords and then total resigned aquiescence.
Elgar composed the song between 14 June and 1 July in 1889, and dedicated it to J.H. Meredith an honorary member of the Worcester Amateur Instrumental Society.vii
The final song in this programme set offers a bubbling, joyous setting of a symbolic pastoral scene.
The Shepherd’ s Song
Down the dusty road together
Homeward pass the hurrying sheep,
Stupid with the summer weather,
Too much grass and too much sleep,
I, their shepherd, sing to thee
That summer is a joy to me.
Down the shore rolled waves all creamy
With the flecked surf yester-night;
I swam far out in star-light dreamy,
In moving waters cool and bright,
I, the shepherd, sing to thee:
I love the strong life of the sea.
And upon the hillside growing
Where the fat sheep dozed in shade,
Bright red poppies I found blowing,
Drowsy, tall and loosely made,
I, the shepherd, sing to thee
How fair the bright red poppies be.
To the red-tiled homestead bending
Winds the road so white and long
Day and work are near their ending
Sleep and dreams will end my song,
I, the shepherd, sing to thee;
In the dreamtime answer me.
The writer is Barry Pain, a Cambridge educated journalist, poet and writer.(viii) He contributed to Punch and was on the staff of the Daily Chronicle. Pain was a well- known writer of his time, and Robert Louis Stevenson compared him to De Maupassant.(ix) The Shepherd’s Song manuscript is dated 22 August 1892, and Elgar’s setting was published in 1895.
Pain’s shepherd is a symbol of nature representing themes beloved of the late Romantics and cramming them all into these verses– after all, how many shepherds usually dream of the sea? In this Hymn of rural praise the voice of the shepherd placed emphatically in the first person “I, the shepherd” expresses the longings and desires of the poet and no doubt the composer as both pianist and singer burst forth in in vigorous acclamation of the delights of the country life.
In these three settings Elgar is giving voice to English poets – two of them his contemporaries – and to the themes of life, love, and nature, which the late Romantics held so dear. Even in his own lifetime Elgar’s greatest music was considered to be quintessentially English – and yet this type of “Englishness” is very hard to define. Elgar is really more European in his outlook. His music is part of the Germanic tradition, and it was Holst and Vaughan Williams who were to move away from this by embracing English folk-song. Elgar’s later works were to glow with colour and opulence at the very height of the age of British Imperialism, but in these early works there are the newly emerging strands of resignation and wistfulness with moments of ebullience, and in this way Elgar the composer evokes memories on a personal level.
Ensemble Morfeo will perform at Priory Place Methodist Church, Doncaster, Wednesday 19 February 2020, 1p.m. Works by Sir Edward Elgar, Rebecca Clarke, Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Dale.
i) Newman, Ernest, The Music of the Masters: Elgar, (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1906), 119-120.
ii) Dunhill, Thomas F., Sir Edward Elgar (London, Blackie & Son Limited,1938), 202.
iii) Charles Phillips married Ethel Barnes (1873-1948) an English composer and violinist. See Sophie Fuller, The Society of Women Musicians https://www.bl.uk/20th- century-music/articles/the-society-of-women-musicians, accessed 17 September 2020.
iv) Robert Southwell (c1561-1595) an English Roman Catholic Priest, poet and hymnodist.
v) Francis Quarles (1592-1644) Poet.
vi) Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).
vii) Young, Percy, Elgar O.M.: A Study of a Musician (London, White Lion Publishers, 1973).
viii) Barry Eric Odell Pain (1864-1928).
ix) “Short Stories Dickensesque”, The Independent 28 December, 1914. Accessed 16 February, 2020.
© Kathryn Mosley