The five Pomp & Circumstance marches (a sixth was intended, but never completed) give the listener an accurate reflection of the contrasting sides of Edward Elgar’s character. By turns ebulliently outgoing and darkly introspective, a merry prankster when relaxing with friends, but always brittle and often unpleasant (especially to amateur orchestras!), Elgar remains a strange and contradictory figure.
Even the overall titling of the set of marches raises unresolved questions. Taken from Shakespeare’s Othello, the phrase appears in the speech in which the broken Othello decides to leave the military life:
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
It is hard to believe that Elgar failed to appreciate any irony in the talk of “glorious war”, but there is no sign of equivocation in the comments he made about his marches. “I have some of the soldier instinct in me”, he said, and “we are a nation of great military proclivities, and I did not see why the ordinary quick march should not be treated on a large scale in the way that the waltz, the old-fashioned slow march, and even the polka have been treated by the great composers”.
He was as good as his word. His marches – and they are to be found everywhere in his works – are indeed on the grand scale. In the sure orchestral craftsmanship of their orchestration and the often majestic grandeur of their trio tunes, they go far beyond bare military accompaniment. The best known and loved of the marches is certainly the First, which appeared in 1901, at the high-water mark of imperial pride. This is the tune to which Land Of Hope And Glory is sung. It is closely followed in national affection, though, by No. 4, the work being played tonight, which was premiered in 1907. Both of these pieces feature lively, perky, almost facetious march sections, followed by lovely, expansive, unforgettable tunes in radiant major keys, apt to bring a lump to the throat of the least nationalistic listener.
Elgar affected diffidence as to the quality of the No. 4 march: he wrote to his publisher that the first part was “good: the middle rot but pleasing to march to”. He was not serious. He knew very well that he had another tune which would “knock ‘em flat”. The opening march section has jaunty two-bar phrases with syncopated figures on the lower strings, and just when this pattern is becoming comfortable, Elgar wedges in an extra bar! There then follows the justly-famous trio tune, the first to be marked with the characteristic Nobilmente. This is then recapitulated before the piece works towards its triumphant end.
The fifth and last Pomp and Circumstance march, which appeared as late as 1930, is felt by many to be the greatest of them all, with a subtle introduction giving way to a melody so soaring that – perhaps mercifully – no serious attempt has been made to give it words. And yet there is an elusiveness about it: it refuses to be pinned down. There is an ambiguity in the piece which, despite its late composition, seems to place it between the two great major marches, and the very different Nos. 2 and 3. These are written in minor keys, and are hesitant, questing, exploratory: there is certainly nothing at all jingoistic about them.
So, with their varied moods, the Pomp and Circumstance marches need to be heard and appreciated as a set, whereupon it becomes clear that their intent is not nearly as straightforwardly militaristic and patriotic as Elgar implied. Outwardly confident, but often wistful and beset by doubts – as true of the music as of the man.