Elgar Remembered

Gramophone Thu 1st January 2015

A centenary tribute by Gramophone's founder, Compton Mackenzie (Gramophone, June 1957)

Edward Elgar

I met Elgar first in 1921. He was then 64, and when one is 38 that seems a venerable age; it seems rather less venerable when one is 74. It was Robin Legge, the music editor of the Daily Telegraph, who introduced me to him when the bow-windowed Savile Club was still housed at 107 Piccadilly. Later Robin Legge told me that Elgar had behaved ungratefully to Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry, but I was never able to extract from him the reasons for this accusation. I had been devoted to Parry, but by this date Stanford was so infernally disagreeable to younger men that I should not have felt the slightest indignation, however badly Elgar might have behaved. 

It may be difficult for us today to think of Elgar as a revolutionary figure in music at odds with the academic and conservative figures of his art, but it is important (and perhaps it was never so important as it is for the young critics of today) to recognise who have been the genuinely creative artists of the near past. The critics of today suffer from an excess of influence with a lack of equipment to justify such influence. The reason for their influence is the vast uncritical and comparatively uneducated public of intellectually nouveaux richeswhom they serve as guides. Contemporary criticism has much in common with the books of etiquette that were a feature of late Victorian times when social barriers were beginning to fall. 

Elgar himself was for a man of genius strangely sensitive about being considered old-fashioned, so sensitive indeed that as a kind of protective armour he used to protest continually that he had lost all interest in music. To hear him talk sometimes one might suppose that he regarded his own musical achievement as a youthful indiscretion. When I started Gramophone in 1923 Elgar said to me one day that he supposed all the young critics of the paper would be sneering at him. 

'Not that I care,' he growled quickly. 'I take no more interest in music. You'll find as you grow older that you'll take no more interest in literature. The secret of happiness for an artist when he grows old is to have a passion that can take the place of his art. I have discovered the joy that diatoms can give me. This miraculous world of beauty under the ocean revealed by the microscope is beyond music,' and he went on to expatiate on the exquisite patterns formed by these fossilised algae and the spiritual comfort that observation of them brought to his mind. 

As I write these words the manner and appearance and voice of Elgar are vividly in my memory, so vivid that I could almost lean over and say to that gruff figure looking like a retired colonel, 'You were wrong, Sir Edward, weren't you, when 34 years ago you said to me that you would be forgotten 10 years after you were gone?' Not that I believe Elgar really did believe that. It was a part of that armour he assumed to protect himself against the patronising sneers of the younger critics who had decided to regard him as a curious survival from the Edwardian decade. Why this cliché should have been accepted is a puzzle. Pomp and Circumstance may reflect an optimistic mood about the future of the British Empire, but that was a mood in which most people could indulge during that Edwardian decade which for its first five years was a hang-over from the Victorian 1890s.

But what else of Elgar's music is peculiarly Edwardian, which as an epithet today signifies a lush security (largely imaginary be it said) and a sort of postprandial euphony which the present generation, suffering from apprehension of the future and indigestion of the past, is denied? Neither of his two great symphonies, which except by Sibelius have not been surpassed in this century, is 'Edwardian'. His great Violin Concerto, which has not been surpassed even by Sibelius, is not peculiarly 'Edwardian', and surely his great Cello Concerto bears not a trace of Edwardianism, for I doubt if any other musical composition inspired by the First World War so faithfully preserves the mood of that sombre moment in human history. As for theEnigma Variations, time cannot stale nor custom wither their infinite variety. 

Unfortunately I am not equipped to argue the case for Elgar musically. I am merely the impressionable lover of music as a listener who derives from the best of Elgar's music a sensuous pleasure that does not begin to pall as the years pass on. Nobody alive today should be rash enough to prophecy what pleasure it will give to the world at the centenary of Elgar's death. Goethe said that every age was an age of transition, but the transition through which we are passing is more rapid and violent than any which has preceded it in human history. It may well happen that Bach and Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and others greater than Elgar will seem to that mercifully unimaginable tomorrow what nursery rhymes seem to us today. 

We devotees of the gramophone owe a particular debt to Elgar because he was the first great contemporary composer to apprehend what the gramophone might effect for musical appreciation, and in this regard let us remember how much Elgar himself owed to Landon Ronald and to 'His Master's Voice'. Yet Elgar's own enthusiastic cooperation was invaluable, and I never heard him suggest that by conducting his own works he was humouring a toy. No pains were too great for him to take, and in those days recording demanded a great deal more from conductor, orchestra and singers than it does today. 

Elgar once told me that when he was a young man he had declared to his mother that he should not be content until a postcard from abroad addressed 'Edward Elgar, England' should find him. When he had long since satisfied that ambition he became anxious about his address by posterity, and as I have related he tried to steel himself against anxiety by assuming the armour of indifference. Yet, I think that deep within him he had faith in the permanence of his best work, and I know that whatever he may have asserted about his lack of interest in music he was at its mercy to the end.

I have sat next to him in Queen's Hall during a performance of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and seen him trembling all over and beads of sweat upon his forehead while the March to the Scaffold was being played. That self-possessed, gruff, monosyllabic colonel was at that moment possessed by the daemon of his own genius. 

I wish that somebody really able to estimate Elgar's position in music could have written this centenary tribute, and yet with so many memories of his kindness and encouragement to myself I am proud and glad to have been able to offer these inadequate words of mine to the memory of a great musician. 

 

This article was first published in the June 1957 issue of Gramophone.

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