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Friday, 13 February, 1998, 16:22 GMT
Anthony Payne on Elgar's Symphony No 3
Andrew Davis, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with composer Anthony Payne
Andrew Davis, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with composer Anthony Payne
The British composer Edward Elgar died in 1934, leaving behind 141 sketches for his thrid symphony. The piece was originally commissioned by the BBC. Many decades later, the BBC's classical music network, Radio 3, asked the composer Anthony Payne to "elaborate" on Elgar's sketches. Anthony Payne describes how he completed Elgar's Symphony No 3.

Anthony Payne
Anthony Payne
The history of Elgar's Third Symphony has been well documented, but it is worth repeating the basic facts. Elgar's old friend George Bernard Shaw had often badgered the composer about producing a third symphony, and early in 1932 he renewed his attempts, suggesting that the BBC might be persuaded to commission it.

The affair snowballed: newspapers got hold of the story, Shaw cajoled the BBC, and later that year Elgar actually spoke of having "written" the symphony, though clearly this was untrue in the physical sense.

In December the BBC announced officially that it had commissioned the symphony, and from then on we may assume that Elgar worked with deep seriousness.

Throughout what was to be the last year of his life, he put parts of the work down on paper - sometimes an extended section, sometimes just a chord progression. Elgar had an extraordinary way of working, jumping from movement to movement as the spirit took him, and ideas sometimes came to him outside the context of a tempo: for instance, one sketch, clearly marked "scherzo", eventually ended up in the slow movement.

By the same token themes from earlier years were pressed into service, including ideas for The Last Judgement, a projected oratorio, and episodes from his incidental music for Binyon's historical drama Arthur which he had composed a decade before.

Critics have held this against the symphony. But there is no real reason why ideas should not be re-allocated in this way; after all, the practice goes back to Bach and beyond.

When Elgar died in February 1934 he left over 130 pages of sketches for the unfinished symphony, most of them in short-score, with only a few instrumental indications. These pages contained the vestiges of an inspired work, yet they seem to have aroused little interest until comparatively recently.

Although my contemplation of the sketches began in 1972, it was not until 1993 that the BBC producer Paul Hindmarsh phoned to ask whether I would be interested in putting them into some sort of shape for a workshop performance. I jumped at the idea and began work on the Scherzo, for which the sketches supplied all the material.

Next I managed to write out a complete exposition for the Adagio by means of jigsaw-puzzling with the sketches. The ordering of the main subjects for the remainder of the movement had to be worked out by educated guesswork and intuition. By now the BBC had sent me photocopies of the complete sketches.

From a scrap of developmental music among these I began to see how I could complete the Adagio. I forged ahead and wrote the last bar on 24 February 1994, a day after the sixtieth anniversary of the composer's death.

At this point I thought that I had achieved all that was possible, for Elgar had written down only the exposition and recapitulation of the first movement, while the material for the finale enabled one to assemble the exposition and no more.

All of this was shortly to become of academic interest, however, because the Elgar family, who owned the copyright to the sketches, came to the decision that they could not allow work to continue on the project. They felt a responsibility to honour Elgar's wish that no-one "tinker" with the sketches.

While I sympathised with their stance, I was, of course, deeply disappointed: I had begun to feel as involved with the symphony as if it had been a piece of my own. At this stage I thought, rather dejectedly, that I would probably never return to the symphony. But the saga continued to unfold.

With the family's permission I went ahead and recorded a talk about the sketches for Radio 3 in March 1995. It caused something of a stir, and convinced many that the symphony would have been of the highest quality.

I returned home from the recording thinking this really was the end of the affair, but fate had other ideas. Next day, when taking a final look at the sketches, I quite suddenly discovered the key to completing the first movement - the very thing I had dismissed as impossible in my radio talk.

The idea struck with the force of a lightning bolt: I recognised that four pages of faintly outlined snippets I had previously discounted were in fact intended for the development section. Plunging in at the deep end, I completed the development and the related coda in a couple of weeks.

Despite the embargo, I felt I owed it to Elgar to finish as much as I could while I felt the spirit was upon me.

After the exhilarating experience of finishing the first movement, I felt for the first time that I could perhaps complete the whole symphony. It seemed as if I was being impelled by forces outside myself, and again fate took a hand.

Realising that the sketches would in any case come out of copyright in 2005, allowing anyone to "tinker" with them, the Elgar family finally decided to commission from me a complete version of the symphony, and in August I began to write out in full orchestral score all that I had so far done.

It was during this process that I became more consciously aware of the overall sweep of the symphony. It was different in its sheer breadth of emotion from any of his other symphonic works: there was the raw vigour and magic lyricism of the opening movement, the use of a lighter manner in the second which went far beyond his established symphonic practice, and the searing intensity of the Adagio, tragic in its import, while the finale revealed a world of chivalric action and drama.

With this in mind I faced the greatest obstacle: Elgar had left no hint as to how the symphony was going to end. I had to compose the whole of the development section and the coda - much as in the first movement but without the helpful pointers - and, toughest of all, to envision the work's ultimate goal in a manner true to Elgar's creative bravery.

It was not even certain what basic structure Elgar had in mind for his finale, although I felt that the breadth of the expository material in the sketches pointed towards a sonata form. This I enriched by incorporating into the development a ravishing G minor interlude whose placing in the movement is not precisely indicated by the sketches.

As it now stands, the passage seems to have strayed from some rondo substratum, and yields a structural ambivalence which I hope is worthy of Elgar's symphonic thought. As for the symphony's closing pages, I decided to dare all in honour of Elgar's unpredictability. What if he had thought to place the haunting repetitions of "The Wagon Passes" from his recently completed Nursery Suite into a broader symphonic context?

The finale's main subject actually suggests this kind of treatment, and it would lead the music away into some new visionary world, spanning the years between the composer's death and my attempted realisation of his sketches. I trusted my intuition and went ahead and wrote.

© Anthony Payne

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