At some point in the year 2000, by the end of my first year at university, I started to cultivate something of an obsession with the life and work of the late-romantic British composer Edward Elgar. However catchy and brilliantly orchestrated the Pomp & Circumstance marches were, what ignited my interest in Elgar’s music was what I saw as a very personal contrast between a surface of studied sobriety (or pomposity) alternating with really striking episodes, sometimes very humorous, sometimes very moving. After a first hearing of Pierre Monteux’s recording of the Enigma Variations, I believed I had encountered in Elgar a musical mind whose mysteries were worth devoting oneself to.
An example of Elgar at his most mysterious is found in the choral song Owls, an Epitaph, set on a poem written by Elgar himself and dedicated to Pietro d’Alba –his daughter’s pet rabbit– a work which both in text and music represents perhaps the most obvious case of Elgar working at several removes from the ceremonial style of Pomp & Circumstance.
A couple of years after discovering Owls I came across a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez which struck me as being remarkably similar in many ways to Elgar’s text. The poem by Juan Ramón had been published in 1904, and Elgar’s song in 1908; however, there isn’t anything in the biographies of Elgar that I’ve read to suggest that he would have known the work of the Spanish poet. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always thought there are some haunting parallels between these two entirely unrelated texts. So here I present them, Juan Ramón’s poem given in my own English translation (the original is included in the appendix at the end of this post), followed by Elgar’s. Continue reading