In 1911, King George V and Queen Mary were crowned in India. To commemorate the
event, a huge masque was commissioned and staged at the Coliseum Theatre in London
in March 1912. As composer of the Coronation Ode,
written for King Edward VII's planned coronation in 1902 and revived in 1911 for King George's
coronation, it was natural that Elgar should be approached to write the incidental music to
accompany the masque.
Elgar composed twelve pieces for the masque, around sixty minutes of music in total, for
contralto, bass, chorus and orchestra. He subsequently extracted five of these and added an
intermezzo for solo violin to form a suite, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival
in Hereford in September 1912. It is in this form that the work is normally heard today.
The similarities of purpose with the Coronation
Ode inevitably lead to musical comparisons being made between the two works. But
it should be remembered that, while the Coronation Ode
was written as a self-sustaining choral work, The Crown of India was written for
the theatre, with the orchestral suite constructed subsequently and representing what Elgar
presumably considered to be the best of the music. And whereas the
Coronation Ode resulted from a true collaboration between Elgar and a
sympathetic librettist, A C Benson, over a period of more than a year, for the masque
Elgar was presented with a completed libretto by Henry Hamilton. Elgar considered
it to be riddled with the rhetoric of Empire and omitted passages with which he had little
sympathy. Finally, Elgar was given an impossible deadline of barely more than a month in which
to complete the score.
Having only recently moved into Severn House, Hampstead and faced with
substantial bills to settle, Elgar nevertheless took on the task for the money it would earn him.
He put together a score composed almost entirely from themes he had jotted down over the
previous ten years. This is in many respects the key to the work : as music conveying the pomp
and pageantry of the times, it clearly takes second place to a number of his better known works.
But leave behind the circumstance and you will find passages containing the beauty, craft and
inventiveness one traditionally associates with Elgar....something of a mixed bag, but certainly not
a work to be discarded or ignored.