Edward Elgar – The Black Knight, Cantata (‘Choral Symphony’) op. 25
(b. Broadheath, 2 June 1857 – d. Worcester, 24 February 1934)
Edward and Alice Elgar married on 8 May 1889 at the Brompton Oratory in London. Shortly after, Edward started to sketch a major choral work. He loved the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and knew his English translation of Der Schwarze Ritter (The Black Knight), a poem by the German poet Ludwig Uhland, and it was this that Elgar chose as the libretto. Not that Uhland’s poem was entirely from his own imagination: it is based on an earlier German work telling of a mystery surrounding the second marriage of Alexander III of Scotland in 1285.
Elgar planned the work on a considerably larger scale than anything he had previously com-posed. The poem is in four parts and Elgar imagined the work as a choral symphony in four movements. There is a far greater emphasis on the orchestral writing than was usually expected of contemporary choral works and Elgar knew that he was breaking the mould. But that was no easy task for a provincial composer with no reputation beyond Worcestershire. So it is not surprising that the work developed little beyond sketches until, in 1892, Hugh Blair, conductor of the Worcester Festival Choral Society, offered to perform the work at Worcester. Elgar completed it in time for a first performance on 18 April 1893 at the Worcester Festival. It was well received, but when Novellos published it, they insisted that it should be called a cantata, not a choral symphony.
The Black Knight undoubtedly represents an important step forward in the standard of choral writing of the time. But compared with Elgar’s later choral works, it does have a certain ‘roughness’. Not that the music should be dismissed in its entirety. The striking opening, based on a theme that Elgar had noted in 1879, anticipates Elgar’s ceremonial style, and there are some lovely lyrical passages. But one can never escape the feeling that this is an early work in which the composer is searching for his voice – and it occupies a similar place in Elgar’s output as does Das Klagende Lied in Mahler’s.
Phillip Brookes, 2023
For performance material please contact Novellos, London. Reprint of a copy from the collection Phillip Brookes, Roxas City.
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