Dispirited by the perceived failure of the first performance of
The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar uttered
his oft-quoted remark "I always knew God was against art..." ...and quickly
set to work on this overture. It is supposed to present a musical portrait
of life in turn-of-the-century London - admittedly a somewhat
romanticized portrait, for Cockaigne is the fabulous country of
luxury and delight.
Elgar wrote a detailed programme for the
work, including lovers in a secluded public garden and a brass
band appearing round a corner. At this time, however, the Elgars had lived in
London for only one brief, unhappy spell some ten years earlier, and it is
equally possible to see within the music Elgar's native
Worcestershire. The lovers' theme in particular evokes the open
spaces of his favourite Malvern Hills with their broad panoramas,
where Elgar escaped from the harsh realities of life as a
struggling composer by flying kites. Indeed, at the end of the
score, as if in acknowledgement of his true inspiration, he added
a quotation from the medieval poem Piers Plowman: "Meteless and
moneless on Malverne hulles".
The work was an immediate success, not only in Britain (where Hans Richter was
an early champion) but also in Germany and the USA. This is a lively, colourful and varied
if in parts a little brash. It continues to be performed regularly.