Op. 40, "In London Town", Sir Edward Elgar

Between 1900 and 1901 Edward Elgar wrote a musical portrait of Edwardian London, using the old nickname for the city by titling it the Cockaigne Overture.  It was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and he dedicated it to “many friends, the members of the British orchestras.”  He explained:“I call it ‘Cockayne’ and it is cheerful and Londony- stout and steaky… honest, healthy, humorous, and strong, but not vulgar… ‘” The vulgarity he alluded to undoubtedly had to do with some of Cockagyne’s early history.

As noted in  William Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, the concept of Cockaigne might have begun in ancient Greece, but more probably the connection to London  stemmed from the thirteenth century French poem by Rutebeuf (a famous minstrel).  He described “The Land of Cockaygne”, in 95 octosyllables couplets as a utopia.  It was  “the land of all delights… an imaginary country of idleness and luxury, whose rivers flow with wine, whose houses are cake and barley sugar… fish came into the house, already fileted.”  (See “Utopia and the Ideal society: in Search of a Definition”: Cambridge University Press, 1981.)

In the fourteenth century, “The Land of Cokaygne” appears in one of the Irish Kildare poems, which describes  a corrupt community of monks at the Cistercian abbey at Inislounagt.  In the sixteenth century (1567) Cokaygne’s influence emerged in an oil painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which shows the drunken results from the gluttony and excesses from living in “the lazy, luscious land.”

The nickname persisted into the seventeenth century. In 1627 the very stern  Bishop Joseph Hall in “Solomon’s Politicks of Commonwealth” satirized Cockagyne ; but Richard Bernard’s allegory (1626) “The Isle of Man”, described  the  Cockagyne as “an England perfected: the people do live in peace, the Land prospereth, Justice flourisheth…and the enemies at home and abroad made to fear.” The title also became associated with the term  cockney-  a term applied to a native of London.

Elgar conducted the successful premier on June 20, 1901 in Queen’s Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1926 and 1933 he made two recordings: the 1933 version with the BBC Orchestra can be heard on Youtube.

The piece is crafted in several parts, a soundscape which offers a panorama of various city scenes. As described by Mr. Joseph Bennet, a friend of Elgar, these are:

Cheerful Aspect of London

Strong and Sincere character of Londoners

The Lovers’ Romance

Young London’s Interruption

The Military Band

In the Church

In the Streets

Although the musical tour begins quietly, the hustle and bustle of the big city scampers immediately into the foreground. Sometimes this has been called “the citizen theme.” The energy yields to a slower nobilmente theme which first came to Elgar “one dark day in the Guildhall; looking at the memorials of the city’s great past and knowing full well the history of its unending charity.  I seemed to hear far away in the roof a theme, an echo of some noble melody.” The opening ideas return.

A key shift to E major introduces the Lovers’ romance with a gentle lyrical passage. As the music perks up with a light march, the cityscape returns: big, and bold with timpani undercurrents (Young London’s Interruption). The speed increases before the  brass forcefully proclaim a major idea…from afar a military band approaches, growing in stature as they march to the forefront. The church section is delicate: a place of relative quiet for the young lovers, and then they return to the streets. At this point, the energy of the city is not to be denied. A small coda, with references to the noble theme, and the lovers’ theme, brings the Overture to a roaring close.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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