The public and the private Elgar meet in the second of his two completed symphonies. At first acquaintance, it appears to be the work of the grandly demonstrative rhetorician of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches; but the confidently worked surface conceals a much more withdrawn, introspective, sometimes depressive personality. And the conflict between these two aspects of Elgar's immensely complex character is reflected in the many verbal statements which he made on and about the score.
To begin with, its title-page, dated 16 March 1911, bears a dedication 'to the memory of His Late Majesty King Edward VII' (who had died in May 1910), with an explanation that the symphony had originally been 'designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute'. There is no doubt that Elgar sincerely mourned the death of Edward VII, whom he had met on several occasions, and who had bestowed his knighthood on him. But the score also has prefaced to it a quotation from Shelley, 'Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight' - which suggests a much more personal source of inspiration. Then at the end of the score Elgar had printed the inscription 'Venice-Tintagel (1910-11)'. He had conceived some ideas for the work on a visit to Venice (though in the spring of 1909 rather than in 1910): he was especially struck by the contrast between the calm of the interior of St Mark's and the activity on the sunlit Piazza outside. Tintagel, on the coast of Cornwall, was where, on a motoring tour in April 1910, he went to visit his friend Alice Stuart-Wortley. Mrs (later Lady) Stuart-Wortley, who may well have been the secret dedicatee of the Violin Concerto of 1909-10, seems to have been the "patron saint" of this work as well. Elgar wrote to her in October 1910 that he had been 'weaving strange and wonderful memories into very poor music I fear ... With all the sad things in the great public life - the King's death downwards - the radiance in a poor, little private man's soul has been wonderful and new.'
Other remarks by Elgar about the symphony, and other facts which have been pieced together by his biographers, are also on the personal plane. Some of the slow movement was first sketched as an elegy for Elgar's friend Alfred Rodewald as early as 1904; the expansive second subject of the finale was apparently conceived as a portrait of the conductor Hans Richter; and, after the death of his friend Frank Schuster in 1927, Elgar wrote that the end of the finale could stand as a memorial to him.
The strangely threatening elements in the first and third movements he described once (again to Alice Stuart-Wortley) as standing for 'a sort of malign influence wandering thro' the summer night in the garden'; but on another occasion he linked the passage in the third movement with some lines in Tennyson's Maud describing an unquiet grave. And on yet another, agreeing with a friend that the whole symphony represented a ‘passionate pilgrimage' of the soul, he added that this passage showed 'the madness that attends the excess or abuse of passion'.
The more we study these hints and suggestions, the more we are forced to the conclusion that Elgar wanted to conceal rather than uncover the deepest wellsprings of his inspiration, with half-truths and deliberate obfuscations; and that the biggest obfuscation of all is the work‘s formal, loyal dedication. Certainly the symphony's first audiences seem to have been puzzled and disappointed by its unexpectedly intimate tone, and it had much less public success than the First had enjoyed when it appeared in 1908.
After the first performance of the Second in May 1911, in a London busy with preparations for the coronation of King George V, the applause was no more than polite. 'What is the matter with them, Billy?', Elgar, who had been conducting, whispered to the leader of the orchestra, W.H. Reed. 'They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.' The difference between the First and Second Symphonies can be summed up by comparing their respective motto-themes and the use Elgar makes of each. That of the First is a long, noble melody, the principal statements of which form the pillars of the whole structure of the work, and which finally conveys what Elgar called a 'massive hope in the future'. That of the Second, which presumably represents Shelley's 'Spirit of Delight', is simply the second and third bars of the theme at the very beginning of the work: that is, after the extended upbeat, a downward arching arpeggio, another upbeat lift, and a great swooping descent. Its elements reappear in different guises at several points in the symphony, but the idea is never heard in anything like its original form after the first movement: 'Rarely, rarely comest thou'. In the first movement, the motto provides an opening of striving, passionate energy, to which the gentle lyricism and melancholy of the second-subject group provide a strong contrast. When the darker mood of Elgar's 'malign influence' begins to be felt in the development section, over insistent drum beats and pizzicato double basses, it is tempered by the presence in the background of the arpeggios of the motto: only when they disappear does the menace in the music become starkly manifest. And it is the downward-swooping phrase of the motto which leads the way back towards the recapitulation, and which also heralds the movement‘s feverishly brilliant conclusion. The first limb of the motto provides the opening of the funeral-march main theme of the C minor Larghetto; and it is the return of this theme which is one of the symphony's most striking moments, the oboe's wailing molto rubato counterpoint (in Diana McVeagh's phrase) 'adding personal to monumental grief'. After the movement's great climax, on the third of its three principal ideas, the motto theme is recalled gently as a kind of benediction. The motto is not quoted in the C major Rondo, but there is a different reference back to the first movement: the return in one episode of the melody and atmosphere of the ‘malign influence' passage, even more despairing than before. It seems to come out of the blue, and disappear as suddenly: yet there has been a hint of obsession almost from the start of the movement; and the appearance of fragments of the rondo theme in this strange passage suggests that it is not completely divorced from its surroundings. After the intensity of the two middle movements, the easy-going though dignified first theme of the finale offers relaxation; so too does the movement's relatively straightforward progress, for all the staggering intricacy and virtuosity of the fugato episode at the start of the development section. But after all that has gone before, neither dignity nor brilliance can provide a suitable ending to this symphony: instead, in the coda, the downward curve of the motto-theme returns once more - a last look back at the 'Spirit of Delight' which Shelley, and Elgar, found so elusive.