The British custom of retreating to Italy's sunnier climes formed the basis of Elgar's concert overture In the South. By 1904, the public was eagerly awaiting the composer's first symphony, but Elgar's self-criticism led him to put a partially completed symphony on hold. He then offered up the present work, the longest single symphonic movement he had written up to that point. In the South had grown out of a merry excursion to the Italian town of Alassio and the neighboring village Moglio. Elgar spent most of the 1904 winter working on the overture. After its premiere comparisons with Richard Strauss' Aus Italien were inevitable, but these irritated Elgar even when favorable.
In the South paints a sunny Mediterranean postcard picture, yet is not quite as finely wrought as the Cockaigne Overture. It is fun nonetheless and shows Elgar to be a knowing hand at orchestral color. Typically, some of the musical material was of curious genesis, as will be seen. The opening theme came from an 1899 depiction of Dan the bulldog (immortalized in Enigma Variation XI) triumphant after a fight; the composer described the reoworked theme as "Joy of living (wine and macaroni)." This theme is juxtaposed with a nobilmente continuation. The second theme proper is a plaintive depiction of a shepherd grazing his flock among the ruins of an old church, the piping of his reed fulute sketched by the woodwinds. There follows a vivacious theme drawn from Elgar's delight in silly wordplay; when it was suggested that one could "roll" to and from the hillside village of Moglio, the composer toyed with the phrase "Moglio, Moglio, roglio, roglio" and applied the resulting speech rhythm to the theme. A fragment of this music yields another lively tune, which Elgar named "Fanny Moglio." The shepherd and "Fanny" themes are worked out in the development, which, in its increasing dissonances and frenetic rhythms, does suggest Strauss. The introduction of a sterner section in minor was said by Elgar to represent the conflicts and wars which peppered the Italian landscape through the ages (this puzzled Elgar's friend and reviewer Jaeger, who wondered why Italy in particular). The passage resolves back to the pastoral tune of the shepherd. Against a pedal the recapitulation commences. The sun-drenched coda features interplay of the two fragments of the opening theme and the "Fanny Moglio" theme, and, against a tympani roll, brings this agreeable travelogue to an end.