Laurence Binyon, the noted war poet, worked in the Department of
Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. The head of
department, Sir Sidney Colvin, was a good friend of Elgar.
late in 1914, Binyon published his collection of war poems, The
Winnowing Fan, Colvin suggested to Elgar that he should compose
a war requiem which captured the spirit of Binyon's poems.
Elgar was deeply affected by the suffering caused by the First
World War and readily accepted Colvin's idea, selecting three of
Binyon's poems - The Fourth of August, To Women and
For the Fallen - to set to music. Elgar had not progressed very far,
however, when he met Cyril Rootham, director of music at St
John's College, Cambridge. To Elgar's consternation, Rootham
revealed that he too was setting For the Fallen, and, moreover,
for Elgar's own publisher, Novello.
Elgar recognised the dilemma facing him. For the Fallen was to
be the climax of his work and he could not contemplate recasting
it to exclude the poem. Yet by continuing, he would invite
inevitable comparisons between the two settings, accusations of
capitalizing on another composer's ideas, and Rootham's
displeasure. Elgar prevaricated until prevailed upon by Colvin
and others to proceed with his original plan.
This was not the end of Elgar's problems. Elgar felt a lingering
debt of gratitude to the German nation for championing his early
works, most notably The Dream
of Gerontius, and he found it hard to set some of the
harsher words in The Fourth of August. This led to the second
and third parts being completed and premiered in May 1916 when
the first part was still some way from completion. Eventually Elgar
found the resolve to continue, taking the work through to
completion one year later.
Until recently, the first full performance of the work was believed
to have taken place at a Royal Choral Society concert at the
Royal Albert Hall, London on 24 November 1917. However, newly uncovered evidence
published in the November 1996 issue of the Elgar Society
Journal shows that Elgar himself had conducted a complete performance of the work
in Leeds some three weeks earlier. However, even this performance was preceded by a complete
performance in Birmingham on 4 October 1917, conducted by Appleby Matthews, a
notable local musician who, three years later, founded the orchestra that was to become the
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Although The Spirit of England has never gained the popularity or status of the
major choral works that preceded it, in musical terms, though considerably shorter, it is their
equal. In addition to his normal practice of drawing on sketches jotted down some years earlier,
Elgar also included quotations and paradies of phrases from The
Dream of Gerontius. Written at a time when the nation might have expected some
rousing patriotic tunes in the mould of the Pomp and
Circumstance marches, Elgar demonstrated remarkable restraint, capturing well
sadness and desolation of war without becoming maudlin. It is an underrated piece, a precursor
of the introspective chamber works that soon followed.