Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) has always been one of my favourite works by the composer. It was composed in 1901 at a time of great industry –although no major oratorios or symphonic or concerted works were written. Works from this year included the Incidental music for Grania and Diarmid, Op.42, the first two Pomp and Circumstance marches and the lovely May song for violin & piano (or orchestra). Other pieces composed at this time are the ‘Concert Allegro’and ‘Skizze’ for piano solo –a medium that was relatively rare for Elgar.
Cockaigne, Op.40 was dedicated ‘To my many friends the members of British Orchestras.’ It was given its first performance at the Queen’s Hall in London on 20 June 1901. The review posted below was duly written for the Musical Times by an anonymous writer. I have included the references to the other works in the concert programme.
DR. ELGAR'S NEW OVERTURE. At the seventh and last concert, on June 20, was produced a new Overture, 'Cockaigne' (In London Town), from the pen of Dr. Edward Elgar, a composer from whom, after his Orchestral Variations and his Dream of Gerontius, great things are naturally expected. One hearing of this 'Cockaigne' Overture is not sufficient for its due appreciation, but throughout one feels it to be the work of a composer of strong feeling and of rare power in expressing his thoughts. There is vigorous, healthy life in the music, though so full of interesting details of workmanship that it cannot be summed up in haste. The overture has not only a title, but also a programme, and we would frankly acknowledge that, however much it may add to the meaning of the score, the attempt to follow it while listening to the music proved somewhat arduous. The story, or' argument,' is so intimately connected with the varying moods of the music, that it seemed unfair to try to judge the latter merely from a purely abstract point of view. For the moment, then, let us record the fact that in 'Cockaigne' we have a work of high purpose and of high merit, and one which ought soon to be heard again. It was brilliantly performed under the composer's direction, and if the audience could have had its own way the overture would have been repeated.
Mr. Leopold Godowsky played the pianoforte part of Brahms's Concerto in D minor (Op. 15) The performance, as regards technique and taste, was admirable, albeit we should have liked a more intense reading of the first and last movements. Miss Maud Powell was heard to advantage in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. She plays with vigour and with feeling, and her brilliant execution won for her much applause. It was, however, in the expressive Canzonetta that she satisfied us best. Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony, with which the programme opened, was thoroughly well rendered; yet we think that the Andante would have gained by being taken one shade faster- it is marked ‘con moto’. Miss Lydia Nervil sang songs by Mozart and Massenet, and was much applauded.
The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular July 1 1901 (with minor edits)
Sir Edward Elgar’s Overture, 'Cockaigne' (In London Town) can be heard on YouTube. It is from a live broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall in London, UK, 3 September 2011. Jac van Steen conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.