Edward William Elgar – Polonia. Symphonic Prelude
(b. Lower Broadheath, 2 June 1857; d. 23 February 1934)
Early in World War I, Elgar wrote three pieces to accompany recitations of poems by the Belgian Emile Cammaerts: Carillon, Une Voix Dans le Désert, and Le Drapeau Belge. They were intended to raise money for Belgian refugees and proved to be very successful ‘occasional’ music. Spurred on by their example, the conductor of the Scottish Orchestra, Emil Młynarski, asked Elgar in April 1915 if he would do something similar for the Polish refugees. He had a concert date in mind, 6 July at the Queen’s Hall.
Elgar had in fact considered writing a Polish work before the war. He had made the acquaintance of Ignaz Paderewski as long ago as 1899, and had met the great pianist frequently in recent years. There had also been Count Lubienski Bodenham, a neighbour of Polish descent in Hereford, who had become a friend for several years before his death, and who had taught Elgar much about Polish history. But nothing had come of the idea. Then, with the outbreak of war, the Elgars and their friends the Stuart-Wortleys joined the Polish Victims Relief Fund. With the joint encouragement of Alice, his wife, and of the second Alice – the ‘Windflower’ – Alice Stuart-Wortley, he accepted the commission.
Młynarski copied for him three traditional tunes, including z dymem Pozarow (‘With the smoke of the buildings’) and Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła (‘Poland in not lost’) which is now the Polish national anthem. To these Elgar added a theme from Chopin’s Nocturne in G minor, op. 37/1, and the Windflower selected a tune from Paderewski’s Polish Fantasia, op. 19. When he wrote to Paderewski seeking permission to use his theme, he said: “For the Polish Concert in July I composed an orchestra piece ‘Polonia’ as a small personal tribute to you…in the middle section I have brought in remote & I trust with poetic effect a theme of Chopin & with it a theme of your own…linking the two greatest names in Polish music…”
Polonia is Elgar’s only attempt at a ‘fantasia on national airs’, a form embraced by Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many more composers of differing abilities. It is a fine one, too. The orchestra Elgar uses is large, with triple wind, two harps and organ. Just a few bars introduce the first song at figure 3, nobilmente. Rhythmic and march-like, it serves to drive the music towards the second song (z dymem Pozarow), which appears broadly at 6, clothed in Elgar’s warmest orchestration. A modest but powerful development collapses into the mystical central section (between 18 and 25), where Chopin and Paderewski appear, separately and combined, in delicate orchestral colouring. The reprise of the opening section holds few surprises, except that the expected return of the broad second song (34) is not the finale: that is reserved for ‘Poland in not lost’ (39), which provides a suitably rousing ending.
Elgar conducted the first performance at the Queen’s Hall, and made a recording of it, heavily cut, in 1919. But his ‘symphonic prelude’ was never central to his output, and it languished for half a century until it was recorded in February 1974 by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Phillip Brookes, 2012
Performance materials from Chester Novello. Reprint of a copy from the collection Phillip Brookes, Roxas City.