At the turn of the 20th century, Edward Elgar’s star was rising rapidly. He’d had his first big success with the Enigma Variations in 1899, and although The Dream of Gerontius was premiered inadequately in Birmingham, it was soon to receive rave reviews and was performed to rapturous audiences in Germany. Richard Strauss was present at one of these performances and he proclaimed Elgar one of the great modern masters, and his international reputation was set. On top of that the first two Pomp & Circumstance Marches were heading off on their own gloriously successful career; Elgar was dead right when he said about the first march that he “had a tune that would knock ‘em; knock ‘em flat”.
Perhaps then it is no surprise that when the great and the good of the Covent Garden Grand Opera Syndicate were planning their Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House – a concert to celebrate the Coronation in June 1902 and to be attended by the newly enthroned King Edward VII and his Queen – they should turn to Elgar for a new work.
The choice of librettist was a good one. Arthur Christopher (A.C.) Benson and Elgar seemed to be on the same wavelength and they worked well and quickly together. Composition was coming to a conclusion when it was realised that there was no reference to Queen Alexandra. Benson wrote a few short lines celebrating the Queen’s Danish forebears, Daughter of Ancient Kings, and Elgar set them to music of pure, simple beauty. The Coronation Ode was completed in good time, not usually the case when Elgar was writing to order. Rehearsals started. The Sheffield Chorus, one of the very best choirs in the country at the time, was getting to grips with the work when disaster struck. The King was taken ill with appendicitis; an operation would be needed and the coronation, and all the accompanying festivities would have to be postponed. For someone who had been proudly telling friends about the Court Dress he was going to wear while conducting the premiere, Elgar seemed to take things in his stride. He wrote to August Jaeger:
“Don’t for heaven’s sake, sympathise with me – I don’t care a tinker’s damn! It gives me three blessed sunny days in my own country… I was biking out in Herefordsh: yesterday & the news reached me at a little roadside pub: I said “Give me another pint of cider” I’m deadly sorry for the king – but that’s all.”
Proof copy on coloured silk for the Covent Garden concert programme featuring Caruso, Melba and more. The programme was not printed because the Coronation had to be rescheduled owing to the King’s sudden illness. From the collection at The Elgar Birthplace Museum.
So the Coronation Ode didn’t get a State premiere after all, but instead made its debut at the Sheffield Festival in the autumn. For the finale, Elgar had gone back to his greatest hit. Pomp & Circumstance was being performed up and down the land; the King had suggested to Elgar (though Clara Butt claims it was her idea) that if words were ever put to that great tune, it would take it around the world. Some had warned against it, most notably Jaeger. But Elgar adapted the March and Benson’s words Land of Hope and Glory did indeed take it around the world.
The words to Land of Hope & Glory as heard in the finale of the Ode are different from those sung at the Last Night of the Proms. Elgar and Benson adapted the finale as a separate song, and Benson wrote new words. “Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set” might have suited the needs of a detached patriotic song, but you’ll not find them in the original, the best setting of Land of Hope & Glory that is the finale of the Coronation Ode.
Elgar’s Coronation Ode was revived for the coronation of George V in 1911, and Elgar and Benson worked on a new movement dedicated to Queen Mary, The Queen. It has become the practise to include both that and Daughter of Ancient Kings in performances nowadays.
Pages from Elgar’s manuscript vocal score of the Coronation Ode, on display at The Elgar Birthplace Museum.
Perhaps because it was written for a specific event, to herald the arrival of a king whose reign is now considered to be a period of decadent excess, the Coronation Ode is not one of Elgar’s best known works. There have only ever been a couple of complete recordings, and until recently you would have been hard pressed to find a live performance. Thankfully attitudes to this fabulous work seem to be changing. 2012 saw many performances, programmed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. The success of those performances has resulted in many more this year, this time celebrating the 60th anniversary of the coronation. Do try to get to one; the effort will be well rewarded. And if you would like a recording, there are two available, both made in the 1970s and both still sounding great. Sir Alexander Gibson, with Teresa Cahill, Anne Collins, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Gwynne Howell, now available on Chandos: Coronation Ode/Gibson from Elgar’s Birthplace or Sir Philip Ledger with Felicity Lott, Alfreda Hodgson, Richard Morton and Stephen Roberts. This recording is now included in a 6 CD super budget set of Elgar’s large choral works, with all the other pieces being conducted by Sir Adrian Boult: Coronation Ode/Ledger from Elgar’s Birthplace
Get either. You won’t be disappointed!