Falstaff (Elgar)


"Falstaff", though not so designated by the composer, is a symphonic poem in the tradition of Liszt and Richard Strauss. It portrays Sir John Falstaff, the "fat knight" of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" parts 1 and 2.


Elgar set out the divisions of the score in an 'analytical essay' in "The Musical Times" in 1913:

*I. Falstaff and Prince Henry

*II. EastcheapGadshill – The Boar's Head. Revelry and sleep – Dream Interlude: ‘Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy, and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk’ (Poco allegretto)

*III. Falstaff’s march – The return through Gloucestershire – Interlude: Gloucestershire. Shallow’s orchard (Allegretto) – The new king – The hurried ride to London

*IV. King Henry V’s progress – The repudiation of Falstaff, and his death

In the first section, Elgar establishes the two main themes of the piece, that for Prince Hal (marked "grandioso") being courtly and grand, and that for Falstaff himself showing "a goodly, portly man, of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye and a most noble carriage."’ Boito adapted these words of Falstaff for his libretto for the Verdi opera of the same name, but the Falstaff of the opera is essentially the buffo character from "The Merry Wives of Windsor," whereas Elgar’s is the Falstaff of "Henry IV".

The subsequent development of the score follows closely the key events of the two parts of "Henry IV" in which Falstaff features. The Gadshill section shows him attempting a gold bullion robbery but being himself attacked and robbed by the disguised Hal and his companions. Falstaff returns to his base at the inn and drowns his sorrows in drink. In his drunken sleep, he dreams of his youth, when he was a slim page to the Duke of Norfolk. Here too Boito/Verdi and Elgar treat the same material quite differently: in the opera, Falstaff’s nostalgic reminiscence is a lively aria ("Quand’ ero paggio"), but Elgar’s treatment is slow and wistful.

Part III of the score moves to Shakespeare’s "Henry IV, part 2". After Falstaff’s summons to court and commission to raise soldiers for the King’s army, there is a battle scene and then a second interlude, an English idyll in a Gloucestershire orchard. This is dispelled by the news of the King’s death and Prince Hal’s accession. As in the play, Falstaff hurries to London, confident of favours from the new monarch, but is instead dismissed and banished. Finally the broken Falstaff, having crept away, lies dying – "the king hath killed his heart" – and after a return of the theme of the second interlude, a piano C major chord in the brass and a hushed roll on the side-drum portray Falstaff’s death. The work ends with a very brief version of Prince Hal’s theme showing, in the composer’s words, that "the man of stern reality has triumphed." ["The Musical Times", 1 September 1913, pp. 575-579]


Falstaff was commissioned by the Leeds Festival, and was first performed at Leeds on 1 October 1913, conducted by the composer. "The Musical Times" commented, "the work is unsurpassed in modern music for variety, effectiveness and sureness of orchestral writing." ["The Musical Times", 1 November 1913, p. 744] The London première was on 3 November 1913, at the Queen's Hall, conducted by the dedicatee, Landon Ronald. "The Times" said of the London première that it was played to "a not very large but very enthusiastic audience" ["The Times", 4 November 1913 p. 11] and subsequently "Falstaff" has remained less popular than other major Elgar works, though much loved by aficionados. "Music and Letters" noted in its obituary of Elgar that though "a majority would call "Falstaff" his greatest work" most people would "say they like the "Enigma" best." ["Music and Letters", April 1934, p. 109] Even during Elgar’s lifetime, the musical scholar Percy Scholes wrote of "Falstaff" that it was a "great work" but "so far as public appreciation goes, a comparative failure." ["The Musical Times", 1 August 1929, p. 696] .

By 1955, the authoritative publication "The Record Guide" could describe Elgar's "Falstaff" as "the only tone poem of its day that suffers nothing by comparison with the best of Richard Strauss's works in the genre", but there were many who disagreed with that and with Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s view that "Falstaff" was "one of the immeasurably great things in music" with power "identical with Shakespeare’s." ["Music and Letters", January 1935, p. 1] After a performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1983, the critic of "The New York Times" opined that the conductor "could not do much, in fact, to rescue the character’s spirited braggadocio from the programmatic detail that smothered the music." [ [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9807EFDD1038F930A25756C0A965948260&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/C/Contests%20and%20Prizes "New York Times" online archive] ] ] The well-known Elgarian writer Michael Kennedy criticised the work for "too frequent reliance on sequences" and an over-idealised depiction of the female characters. [Kennedy, Michael, "Elgar Orchestral Music", BBC, 1970.] Even Elgar's great friend and champion, W H Reed, thought that the principal themes show less distinction than some of Elgar's earlier works. Reed acknowledged, nevertheless, that Elgar himself thought "Falstaff" the highest point of his purely orchestral work.


Though concert performances have been comparatively rare, [e.g. The [http://www.elgar.org/4nov07.htm Elgar Society's] list of public performances for November 2007 includes 9 performances of the Cello Concerto, 8 of "Enigma", 7 of "Gerontius", but none of "Falstaff"] the work has been well served in recordings. There were no fewer than 20 recorded versions of the work by 2007. [Achenbach, Andrew, "Gramophone", November 2007, p. 53] The composer’s own 1931/1932 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, produced by the eminent Fred Gaisberg of HMV, was widely praised both at the time of its release and when it was remastered for LP and then for CD. Sir John Barbirolli’s 1964 Hallé recording on HMV was chosen by BBC Radio 3’s Record Review as the recommended version, even over the composer’s own. In 2007, the classical music magazine "Gramophone" compared 20 recorded versions of "Falstaff" and selected Barbirolli’s 1964 Hallé recording as "the essential choice" and "one of the pinnacles of the Elgar discography." [Achenbach, Andrew, "Gramophone", November 2007, p. 57]

However, there are a number of other worthy versions of "Falstaff" on disc. Sir Adrian Boult was closely associated with the work and made three recordings of it. His final version, set down in 1973, was praised by critics for emphasising the ‘symphonic’ aspect. In 1978, Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded a version for Classics for Pleasure that "Gramophone" praised for its "spacious yet purposeful conception" and "meticulous fidelity to the letter and spirit of the score and architectural splendour." [Achenbach, Andrew, "Gramophone", November 2007, p. 55] In 2005, the BBC also recommended a Naxos recording by David Lloyd-Jones and the English Northern Philharmonia. [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-bin/radio3/search.pl?KEYWORD1=elgar&KEYWORD2=falstaff&KEYWORD3=&KEYWORD4=&KEYWORD5=&Search.x=22&Search.y=8BBC Radio 3 Record Review online archive] ] and in 2007 "Gramophone" marked it as the "bargain choice" recording of "Falstaff." [Achenbach, Andrew, "Gramophone", November 2007, pp. 55, 57]



*Sackville-West, Edward, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Andrew Porter and William Mann: "The Record Guide" Collins, London, 1955
*Reed, W H: "Elgar", J M Dent & Sons, London, 1939
*Notes to HMV CD "CDM 7 63113 2" (LPO/Boult 1973 recording of "Falstaff")

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