Cockaigne is the most popular of Elgar's three large overtures. Composed about the same time as the first two Pomp and Circumstance marches, it reflects in many places, the broad, British, and almost vulgar spirit of the victorious military events of the period.
The overture opens with a swinging scherzando theme, the little figure of three reiterated semiquavers giving the impression of gaiety. This theme is succeeded by a still more sprightly tune, and the two are developed with great exuberance until a passage of some dignity announces the theme of the nobler Londoner. This is indicated Nobilmente, and is at once lofty and sustained. With a return of the cheerful atmosphere, the brass has some brilliant work, but soon a mood of peacefulness comes over the whole, and after a few cheeky ejaculations, the episode representing the lovers occurs. This is followed by a new theme, which is the sole property of the couple, and the music is now strikingly tranquil and expressive, becoming still more so in the elaboration of the love scenes.
The romantic atmosphere, however, is suddenly squashed by the pert tune of the London street-boy. His theme is happily and significantly derived from that of the nobler Londoner, although the element of fun is naturally irresistible. The music becomes increasingly jerky until presently the opening theme appears fortissimo, presently associated with the lovers' theme. The Nobilmente now enters softly, followed by the concluding strains of the lovers over arpeggio figures, the whole of this portion forming one of the most beautiful in the work. As this serene atmosphere becomes enjoyable, the jaunty, swinging tune of a military band is heard in the distance. The lovers make several attempts to resume their peaceful conversation, but the growing activity of the urchins and approach of the band makes this impossible at the moment.
The music continues to increase in intensity until at last, with a blaring splendour, the band passes by. The passage is strikingly imaginative, the din of drums, bells and triangle, the shrilling of piccolos, and the brazen tune in the brass, combine to make up a most exhilarating and realistic effect. After the street-boys' glee has been testified, the opening theme appears under a sparkling little accompaniment. This is followed by a thump, thump, thump, that unmistakably tells of another body of musicians. This band is a stationary one, however, as the sounds come no nearer and it turns out to be a Salvation Army meeting. The tune is discordant with the accompaniment, but as soon as one makes an attempt at perfect harmony, the other obligingly shifts into a different key. Peace comes to the lovers again through the medium of a neighbouring church, the music now being engaged with contrapuntal working. The street-boy turns up again, and his theme is mingled with that of the lovers as they leave the church. The opening theme appears vigorously in the trombones, the whole being colourfully treated.
The military band approaches again, and passes by with all its former swagger and magnificence. A big ritardando passage now occurs and leads to the final statement of the nobler Londoner theme. The utmost splendour is now used, and the broad tune comes out in the full strength of the orchestra, now joined by the organ. The overture concludes with a last, vigorous reference to the opening theme. Altogether the Cockaigne Overture is a clever work. In places it is inclined to be rather vulgar, but that is because of Elgar's endeavours to obtain local colour of the Bank-Holiday London, The work is not to be counted among the finest of the composer's symphonic achievements, although it is often played and well known. The expressiveness of passages appertaining to the lovers, and the noble dignity of the Nobilmente.
J.F. Porte 1921