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 multimovement 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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