Elgar had long admired Shakespeare's plays and, when approached
to write a piece for the 1913 Leeds Festival, determined on a
symphonic portrayal of Falstaff. The character had of course
been tackled before, most notably by Verdi in his opera, but
Elgar considered the comic image of Falstaff as a bumbling
buffoon, a figure of fun, to be superficial and sought to produce
a work which gave a greater psychological insight into the character.
The result is an intensely programmatic and episodic work.
Moreover, while Elgar had by this time passed the peak of his
popularity, his technical skills had continued to develop. As
if to demonstrate this, he produced a work of considerable
musical complexity. This has led some to regard it as something
of an academic exercise, only properly appreciated through a
detailed understanding of the programme that underlies it.
This is nonsense. The piece can be enjoyed on a number of
levels, including purely as a piece of virtuoso orchestral
writing. Having gained a familiarity with the work, the
programme can, if wished, be more easily followed. But, whatever Elgar
may claim to have been his intention, the music speaks more loudly. The breathtaking variation
of the theme representing Prince Hal immediately preceding the dramatic climax of the work is
noted in Elgar's programme as no more than past times remembered, but who cannot see in it the
exhilaration of a chase across wide open spaces, the sensation that drew Elgar so unswervingly
to the Malvern Hills.
The work makes regular appearances on the concert platform and
seems to be particularly popular with, and particularly well
performed by, youth orchestras.