Elgar’s invention of the human: Falstaff, op.68

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Elgar’s invention of the human: Falstaff, op.68 by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.jpehs.co.uk/publications/elgars-invention-of-the-human/.

Elgar’s Invention of the Human: ‘Falstaff’, op. 68

Published as J. P. E. Harper-Scott. ‘Elgar’s Invention of the Human: Falstaff, Op. 68’. 19th-Century Music 28, no. 3 (2005): 230–53. © 2005 by the Regents of the University of California. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the Regents of the University of California for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on Caliber (http://caliber.ucpress.net/) or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center, http://www.copyright.com.

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Falstaff, Elgar’s tragic symphonic study, is at once program music, a minor piece of Shakespearean criticism, early modernist tonal and structural experiment, and a cynical musical commentary on humankind’s “failings and sorrows.” A satisfactory analysis of the work calls for a discussion of the program, the Shakespearean literary criticism that Elgar based his interpretation on and cited in his own published analysis of the work, and a structural analysis that can make sense both of a variety of generic implications (sonata, rondo, and multi-movement deformations) as well as the complex associations between keys, motives, persons, and ideas in the work, together with its overall tonal structure.

As this multilayered piece is examined from these different angles, Elgar’s interpretation of the character of Sir John Falstaff (as presented by or inferable from Shakespeare) is revealed as an idiosyncratically gloomy view of human relationships and existential possibilities. It is also an intensely personal exploration of late-tonal musical language, its symbolic potential, its structural logic, and its relation to the musical tradition—Elgar’s most complex, adventurous, and rewarding.


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