Elgar is not associated with Christmas in the same way that other English composers are. Through settings of carols by Vaughn Williams, Arthur Sullivan and the wonderful festive contributions by Benjamin Britten we have much to feast on. It appears Elgar is lost for us at Christmas, though in saying this his three choral pieces Ave Verum, Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella written in January 1887 often form a significant part of my advent listening.
I feel it high time to speak about a beautiful unknown contribution of Elgar’s to Christmas music, A Christmas Greeting. Composed in 1907 in Rome and words by Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice, there are very few recordings of this piece, and only one online by the choir of Hereford Cathedral in 1978 (above). The piece was originally written On 8 December 1907, while they were in Rome. They sent it home to Hereford for Dr G R Sinclair and his cathedral choristers who gave the first performance on New Year’s Day 1908.
The setting is fascinating, written for two violins, piano and two voice parts. The start of the piece is almost as strictly Elgarian as possible with an introduction from piano and violins that could almost be a direct quotation from the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, his Violin Concerto or even an Elgar symphony. The subsequent theme is one of deep poise and lyricism, the violins often in 3rds and providing such a festive shimmer to the piece. The entry of the voices is accompanied by a childlike, excitable melody in the piano. Another section is introduced by a direct and beautiful quotation from the movement entitled ‘Pifa’ or ‘pastoral symphony’ from Handel’s Messiah. The voices talk about the ‘pifferari’ or ‘wandering musicians’ and the shepherds, Elgar’s Messiah reference staying close to Handels original vision of his ‘Pifa’ depicting the shepherds abiding in the fields.The violins provide this lyrical ‘Pifa’ quotation in 3rds, suggesting that the scoring of this piece to include two violin parts was to satisfy Elgar’s desire for an affective and pastoral mood.
Upon hearing the piece I was overwhelmed by its simplicity and beauty as well as such sensitive scoring. It is so surprising to me that only 5000 people have viewed the one recording that is available on YouTube, I hope this piece someday makes its way into the core Christmas repertoire. Although Caroline Alice’s Libretti have come under some scrutiny to say the least, this contribution is affective and reflective at the very least and Elgar’s interpretation of her words shows us so much about his reactions to pastoral imagery and life.
A Christmas Greeting Bowered on sloping hillsides rise In sunny glow, the purpling vine; Beneath the greyer English skies, In fair array, the red-gold apples shine. To those in snow, To those in sun, Love is but one; Hearts beat and glow, By oak and palm. Friends, in storm or calm. On and on old Tiber speeds, Dark with the weight of ancient crime; Far north, thr' green and quiet meads, Flows on the Wye in mist and silv'ring rime. To those in snow, To those in sun, Love is but one; Hearts beat and glow, By oak and palm. Friends, in storm or calm. The pifferari wander far, They seek the shrines, and hymn the peace Which herald angels, 'neath the star, Foretold to shepherds, bidding strife to cease. Our England sleeps in shroud of snow, Bells, sadly sweet, knell life's swift flight, And tears, unbid, are wont to flow, As "Noel! Noel!" sounds across the night. To those in snow, To those in sun, Love is but one! Hearts beat and glow, By oak and palm. Friends, in storm or calm.