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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 13:13 GMT

Elgar's ultimate enigma

Edward Elgar: better late than never?

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A new work from a composer who died more than half a century ago is certainly an enigma.

The composer in question is Edward Elgar who succumbed to illness before he could complete his third symphony. Now the piece has been finished by Anthony Payne, who calls his work an "elaboration" of Elgar's sketches.

Edward Elgar, Symphony No 3 - Allegro (excerpt: 1'30"), BBC Symphony Orchestra, NMC recordings D053
This finished "unfinished symphony" is the latest variation on a trend to meddle with not quite completed works of great but late artists.

Elgar's 'new' work has struck a range of notes, not all enthusiastically sounded, across his family, fans and the musical establishment.

[ image: Some of Elgar's notes]
Some of Elgar's notes
Before he died in 1934, Elgar, the composer of the popular Enigma Variations, told his daughter Clarice to burn the sketches for what would have been his Third Symphony, which originally had been commissioned by the BBC in 1933.

But Elgar's work survived. Many decades later Radio 3, the BBC's classical music network, commissioned the British composer Anthony Payne to take the 141 sketches and shape them into a complete piece, adding his own music where Elgar did not leave sufficient material behind.

Some purists of classical music see Payne's offering as the ultimate sacrilege.

[ image: Elgar relative Wulstan Atkins is enraged]
Elgar relative Wulstan Atkins is enraged
Although some of Elgar's descendants gave permission to bring the piece to life, others are enraged at what they see as the breaking of faith with the composer's deathbed wish for commercial exploitation.

Wulstan Atkins, Elgar's godson who is now 92, last saw the composer 10 days before he died aged 76. "He was planning something quite different from the two earlier symphonies. It was going to be much lighter in texture," he said.

Some Elgar scholars have also accused his family of "feasting off the corpse" of one of the great romantic composers of the 20th Century.

But other critics have hailed the reworking as a triumph.

"You don't have to look any further than the opening bars of the Third Symphony to realise that something special is happening here," said Stephen Johnson of the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

[ image: Andrew Davis and Anthony Payne discuss the score for Elgar's 3rd]
Andrew Davis and Anthony Payne discuss the score for Elgar's 3rd
Andrew Davis will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the premiere of the work on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and then in Philadelphia.

He calls the piece "vintage Elgar. Now that it has been done so superbly, this is absolutely the right decision."

Anthony Payne, an Elgar expert, is also unrepentant, saying he "owed it" to the great composer: "I'm afraid that I find it ridiculous of great artists to say that they want their work burned. If that is really what Elgar intended, he should have burned it himself," he added.

[ image: Anthony Payne:
Anthony Payne: "owed" Elgar
"It is nonsense to say that it is impossible to complete. Most of the shapes are there but I needed to fill in some cement to piece it together."

Elgar's stirring "Land of Hope and Glory" is a mainstay and highlight of the "Last Night of the Proms" concert annually held in London in September, and which some view as an outburst of patriotic fervour.

Elgar is reputed to have been urged to write the Third Symphony by playwright George Bernard Shaw when the composer plunged into depression after the death of his wife.

But he is not the only composer to leave work unfinished.

Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is a consistently popular choice of concert goers and Bruckner and Mahler also left behind unfinished symphonies.

Elgar, however, perhaps could have learned from Sibelius. He destroyed the manuscript of his eighth symphony before he died.

A recording of Sunday's performance of Elgar's Symphony No. 3 will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday, February 16, at 19:30 GMT

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Anthony Payne on Elgar's Symphony No 3