Humour and Classical Music
11. Elgar’s Smoking Cantata
by David Barker

I was blissfully unaware of this piece of Elgarian humour until recently when it was on a Hallé disc chosen as a Déjà Review (review).

Elgar often stayed at the home of his good friend Edward Speyer (a more recent acquaintance than those included on the Enigma Variations), and indeed completed his Cello Concerto there in July 1919. It was on this stay that he was reprimanded by his host for smoking in the hall and on the staircase. One tends to think of middle- and upper-class men of that era all smoking like chimneys, especially after dinner, but undoubtedly not everyone did so, and Speyer apparently was very insistent that it not happen in the public areas.

Elgar, rather being offended by the reprimand, was amused, and proposed that he should write a grand five-movement cantata on the subject, even going as far as planning the movements:

  • a Chorus of Unintelligent Smokers
  • a furioso orchestral passage indicating the Awakening of E. Speyer
  • a recitative where the reprimand is issued
  • a comminatory Air
  • a Grand Chorus of Repentant Smokers

I can’t really imagine that Elgar intended to go ahead with the whole piece, settling for a very brief version of the recitative, with the baritone declaiming “Kindly, kindly, kindly do not smoke in the hall or staircase” accompanied by full orchestra, including eight horns. It is all over in fifty seconds, played and sung completely straight. He gave it the opus number 1001, and wrote at the head of the score “specimen of an edifying, allegorical, improving, expostulatory, educational, persuasive, hortatory, instructive, dictatorial, magisterial, inadautory work”. Its existence only came to light in 2003, found among Edward Speyer’s papers long after his death.

There are only two recordings of the piece. The first recording, by baritone Andrew Shore from 2004 (the aforementioned Déjà Review, Hallé CDHLL7505, available legally on YouTube), the second from 2017 on Chandos (CHSA5188) with Roderick Williams (review). I think it is safe to say that comparison of the different versions is unnecessary.