for the 12,000th time…

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

This year I will probably be about the 12,000th person to conduct the Elgar Serenade for Strings in e minor, Op. 20 with youth orchestra. My greatest hope is that there will be another 12,000 after me! It is thrilling knowledge that we’ll be able to pass along our art in one of the most invaluable ways—through making live music.

I mean to encourage all you educators and performers today as we start the New Year. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the past precedent with interpretations. It’s easy to fall in the trap of “There will never be a better recording of this than the one by so-and-so” or “Who really wants to hear my high school band play this piece, when it was premiered so beautifully last year by the local college’s ensemble?” All of this is worth repeating, every second of it —be those seconds of pristine execution from a professional ensemble or the heartfelt quirkiness of a middle-school choir. If we never said “I love you” to people just because the Hollywood actors and actresses present it so beautifully on the silver screen, imagine what a loveless place the world would be. If we didn’t have children because we realized that we might pass on our high cholesterol or allergies, how quickly might the human race disappear?

This is probably a good time to briefly discuss the above mentioned “Serenade for Strings”, as it has likely origins in the piece Elgar wrote for the Worchester Ladies’ Orchestral Class (who were amateur musicians, by the way.) Titled “Three Pieces for String Orchestra”, these lyrical, pastoral (and in the composer’s own words, “stringy”) movements were originally dubbed Spring Song, Elegy, and Finale respectively. Upon hearing the work, Elgar’s wife composed beautiful poetry for each movement. (I’ve managed to get small snippets of the poems from program notes, though I would love to read them in their entirety.) Even the intensely self-critical Elgar proclaimed in a letter to his dear friend C.W. Buck, dated 8 July 1888: “I like ’em (the first thing I ever did!)”

For such a piece of music to inspire poetry and produce rare satisfaction in the composer bespeak the quality of the work. Its probable current incarnation as the “Serenade for Strings” has been well-loved for years.

Interestingly enough, the “Three Pieces” manuscript was lost, and the “Serenade” was first billed by music publisher Novello as “unsaleable”. Amazing that something so precious to us today might have never been brought to light given such a precarious beginning. Eventually the “Serenade for Strings” as we know it today was published by Brietkopf & Hartel in 1892, with the first complete performance of the work not until 1905. (That’s right, 1905. How’s that for threadbare entry into the market?).  Someone had to make it heard in order for it to become an oft-performed staple of the string orchestra repertoire. History ended up being kind to the work because people made it kind. The bottom line is that this music had to see the light of day in order to become viable. It had to be performed again. And again. And again.

While the tale of Elgar’s Serenade is sobering, I suspect the summation of our situation as educators and evangelists for classical music lies in two places with two very different quotes— one hopeful, one cautionary. In the words of Sir Francis Darwin— “But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.” We get to convince the world of the beauty of classical music, simply by carrying on this tradition with all our heart. For if we fail to continue it because we’re hung up on comparing our humble offerings to the Berlin Philharmonic, then we doom ourselves to extinction. As Henry Demarest Lloyd wisely said, “Monopoly is Business at the end of its journey.” Recordings alone cannot rouse our hearts as live performances can; highest-quality live professional performances of classical music cannot possibly reach everyone, as demographics, financial reasons, and exposure show. I know many who may have never been consumers in the classical music market, buying recordings or concert tickets, if not for first being exposed to the noble art through their kids playing it— my own parents included!

Take heart; there is room for all of us. You all have so much to offer the world through classical music, not only for the 12,000th performance, but especially for the 12,000th performance.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .


Anderson, Robert. “Elgar and his Publishers.” The Cambridge Companion to Elgar. Eds. Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 24-31.

Brown, Svend. Serenade for Strings. Programme Note. <> 6 Jan 2011.

Elgar, Edward. Letters of Edward Elgar and Other Writings. Ed. Percy Young. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press Inc, 1979.

Grimley, Daniel M. “ ‘A smiling with a sigh’: the chamber music and works for strings.” The Cambridge Companion to Elgar. Eds. Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 120-138.

Harper-Scott, J.P.E. Elgar: An Extraordinary Life. London: ABRSM Publishing, 2007.


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