My introduction to Edward Elgar’s music was not auspicious. ‘Elgar was not an original composer. There is no work of his which does not echo or re-echo the styles and mannerisms of other composers – sometimes Wagner, sometimes Brahms, sometimes Schumann.’ This is from the 1969 edition of the Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of Great Composers and their Music, a 12th-birthday gift. Cross and his co-author, David Ewen, obviously thought to include Elgar among the ‘great’, though their rationale rested almost entirely on the music’s ‘taste’, ‘breeding’ and ‘inescapable charm’. Needless to say, I was not roused to discover exactly how this translated into sound.
No, it was Gustav Mahler’s troubled life and struggle to be understood that resonated loudest in my adolescent psyche. According to Cross and Ewen, Mahler’s symphonies came from ‘the depths of his tortured soul’ and were among ‘the most eloquent and persuasive music in all symphonic literature’. Now, that I had to hear.
It was the early 1970s and Mahler’s time had come – with a vengeance. Elgar’s time, on the other hand, was already gone. My trusted encyclopedia said so as a matter of fact: Elgar ‘was, for better or for worse, essentially the voice of an era now dead, the so-called Edwardian Age; and his music has the nostalgic quality belonging to the past’. Most of my subsequent encounters with Elgar via the written word were similarly dispiriting. One of my college textbooks, Eric Salzman’s Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (1974), rejected Elgar with a single sentence: ‘[A] late and somewhat provincial representative of the great symphonic tradition.’
‘The music’s Englishness derives primarily from the composer’s use of pure diatonic harmonies’
I did come around to Elgar’s music eventually, of course. Yet I’m sure that had I been born and raised in the UK instead of the US, it would have happened a lot sooner. As Robert Anderson writes in the concluding chapter of his superb biography of Elgar for the ‘Master Musicians’ series (1993): ‘The boy from Worcester continues to hold his countrymen in thrall.’ And so the question must be asked: is Elgar first and foremost an English composer? Certainly his music sounds English. Some have suggested that the inflection of his melodies – their rise and fall – reflects the unique characteristics of English speech. To my ears, though, the music’s Englishness derives primarily from the composer’s use of pure diatonic harmonies (the equivalent, more or less, of playing only the white keys on the piano). Parry, notably, achieves a similar effect in certain passages of his Symphony No 3, The English (1889).
Jan Swafford, an American composer and the author of excellent biographies of Brahms and Ives, puts Elgar’s Englishness another way in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music (1992): ‘As Scriabin was Russian to the core without overt nationalistic apparatus, likewise was Sir Edward Elgar English. The musical voice of the Edwardian Age, Elgar was the first significant English composer since Purcell, some two centuries before. Though he did not use folk tunes or the like, he is unmistakably British the way dark wainscoting or a certain cut of clothes is British. It is a tone, an attitude: dignified, expansive, high-toned, and inspiring.’ Swafford’s comparison of Elgar and Scriabin offers food for thought, but his imagery – with its focus on the decorative – puts me in mind of something Virgil Thomson wrote about the Enigma Variations in 1940: ‘I’ve an idea the Elgar Variations are mostly a pretext for orchestration, a pretty pretext and a graceful one, not without charm and a modicum of sincerity, but a pretext for fancywork all the same, for that massively frivolous patchwork in pastel shades of which one sees such quantities in any intellectual British suburban dwelling.’
Most composers end up being labelled in some way or other: Beethoven was a musical ‘revolutionary’, Tchaikovsky a ‘heart-on-the-sleeve’ Romantic, Debussy an ‘Impressionist’ and Vivaldi ‘wrote the same concerto 500 times’. Affixing reductive tags is a popular pastime, and one that’s applied to most areas of human activity. Elgar has had a few different labels attached to his name over the years. Richard Strauss called him ‘the first English progressivist composer’ – a description that, like Swafford’s, seems sincerely intended to have been complimentary, even if the very pronouncement itself gives off a slightly smug air of German cultural superiority. No matter. Strauss’s label didn’t stick. By the end of the First World War, Elgar’s music was old hat, and works such as the two symphonies, which had barely had the chance to enter the standard repertory, were brushed aside. They were regarded as opulent encrustations of the Edwardian Age and they were virtually valueless in the new economy of post-war culture. Add this historical subtext to a well-meaning generalisation like Swafford’s and you might as well throw in a few well worn leather armchairs and a cloud of cigar smoke with the ‘dark wainscoting’. Sadly, what’s usually meant by ‘Englishness’ in Elgar’s case has got nothing to do with music, really. It’s more about images of old-fashioned gentlemen’s clubs: elitist, self-important and suffocatingly stuffy. Or, put another way, it’s all ‘pomp and circumstance’ – a phrase that unfortunately will be forever associated with the composer’s entire body of work.
‘Elgar was a man who never felt he belonged to anything, much less to an exclusive club’
For those who value Elgar’s music, the tenacity of such labels is especially infuriating because they’re so far off the mark. Read Anderson’s aforementioned biography, Michael Kennedy’s psychologically perceptive Portrait of Elgar or Jerrold Northrop Moore’s lovingly detailed Edward Elgar: A Creative Life and you’ll come away with the same indelible impression: Elgar was a man who never felt he belonged to anything, much less to an exclusive club. One might say he barely felt comfortable in his own skin. The son of a poor piano tuner, Elgar likewise spent surprisingly many years worrying about making ends meet; he was raised Catholic in a Protestant country; and he was a self-taught musician in a society where educational pedigree was of enormous consequence in terms of career and social standing. If any label should rightly be applied to the composer, it would be ‘outsider’.
Throughout his life, Elgar struggled for acceptance, understanding and respect. The struggle fuelled his art and is evident in his music – though in order to discern it, the listener may need to cast aside decades’ worth of misinformation. I remember in 1992, for instance, attending a rare performance of the First Symphony in New York. Andrew Davis led the New York Philharmonic in a sensitive, surely paced interpretation, yet his and the orchestra’s efforts were counteracted by Phillip Ramey’s sneering programme note. Ramey – apparently forgetting that his responsibility was to serve as advocate, not critic – carped about the music’s self-indulgent long-windedness, its ‘empty rhetoric’ and blatant ‘padding’.
Lest you conclude from all this that Americans have cornered the market on misreading Elgar, here’s Norman Lebrecht’s summation of the First Symphony in his Companion to 20th-Century Music (copyright 1992, the same year as Ramey’s note): ‘The [symphony] received 100 performances in just over a year, capturing as it did the sublime certainties of pre-1914 Europe. Its sentimental flaws became apparent in more worldly times.’ Lebrecht’s got it the wrong way around, of course. Elgar said himself that the symphony was ‘written out of a full life-experience and is meant to include the innumerable phases of joy and sorrow, struggle and conquest, and especially between the ideal and the actual life’. If you have any doubt about what this means, the music explains it all. The symphony begins with what can only be a vision or dream of an ‘ideal’. Half-march, half-hymn, it initially appears as if at a great distance: a sweet, quiet melody floating above a resolute bass line. Wisps of a counter-melody peek from the mists. The image draws nearer until it is directly before us, beaming in fortissimo. But, wait. That radiant chord in the trumpets and trombones is marked merely forte, and Elgar indicates that the sound should immediately die away to piano. The brightness of the brass chords continues to vacillate as the music moves on, and a few moments later the entire vision disappears into the shadows. Elgar marked this introduction nobilmente e semplice (nobly and simply) and if you think the music sounds English, perhaps that’s because it’s cast in the pure, diatonic warmth of A flat major. Suddenly, though, we are flung into a chromatically uneasy D minor as the tempo lurches into a breathless, busy Allegro.
It’s a jarring clash and establishes a tension that’s intensified as the symphony unfolds. The radiant A flat major vision reappears repeatedly, though always in fragments, and it seems frustratingly – sometimes even depressingly – out of reach. Near the end of the first movement, for instance, the tune is played in a whisper by the last desks of the strings while the rest of the orchestra recapitulates one of the Allegro’s more lyrical ideas. Indeed, even in the symphony’s final pages, where one would naturally expect the vision to be triumphantly recaptured at last, there are still no certainties. The noble tune is battered by syncopated blasts and aggressive rhythmic dissonances. The effect is thrilling in its sheer explosive power, yet it also sounds strangely (and, as I hear it, poignantly) inconclusive.
Following the first performance of the First Symphony in 1908, Samuel Langford wrote in the Manchester Guardian that Elgar had ‘refertilised the symphonic form by infusing into it the best ideas that could be gathered by the writers of symphonic poems’, thus resolving ‘the conflict which has raged in music for the past 80 years between the rhapsodic and the architectural schools or between programme music and absolute music’. The result, he concluded, gives symphonic form ‘a new kind of unity, both poetic and technical’. Langford was apparently unfamiliar with Mahler’s symphonies, which might be described in analogous terms.
Elgar and Mahler are rarely thought of as kindred spirits, though surprisingly they share many traits. Both composers infused the traditional symphonic structure with a powerful narrative coherence and thrust that was created in part through the injection of allusively personal musical elements that were often nostalgic or frankly sentimental. For Mahler, this meant folksy melodies, chorales, klezmer dances, and the like; for Elgar, it was (in his own words) ‘like something you hear down by the river.’ In his collection of essays, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, the perceptive Michael Steinberg lists a few similarities in their lives and characters: ‘Gloom-pleased (Keats’s wonderful adjective), life-loving, incorruptible, tactless, they were pursued by similar demons, they relished their sense of exile even as they suffered under it, they had religious feelings at once intense and ambivalent, they were exceedingly dependent husbands, they were intellectual musicians who revelled in the popular touch.’ But where Mahler ‘looked and behaved like an exasperated genius’, Elgar ‘had correct English manners [and] took pains to disguise himself as Colonel Blimp’.
Unfortunately, for many music lovers Elgar still wears that disguise. And I’ll admit that, because of continued misperceptions, it’s not always easy to unmask him. What about all those sequences in his music, for instance – an idée fixe in Elgar criticism – aren’t they simply a form of musical portliness? Elgar scholars tend to become apologists when this subject arises. Robert Anderson, for one, asserts that ‘for Elgar the sequence was not just…one of those devices that ‘enable composers to carry on’ by repetition; it was an essential part of his allusive modulating style’. I’ll agree that it was essential, but I’d argue instead that it was used, more often than not, as an expressive device. Take the first movement of the Second Symphony, for instance. It begins exuberantly – almost overwhelmingly so – and Elgar uses sequences to help propel the music forward. In the second theme group (beginning with the first piano marking in the score), though, the same groping two-bar phrase is sequenced repeatedly through what sounds like a nearly endless succession of keys. Clearly, this tune (if one can call it that) isn’t going anywhere – which is perhaps the point. It seems to be searching for something. Could this juxtaposition of giddy joyousness and tentative probing have any significance in a work that has as its literary motto Shelley’s lines ‘Rarely, rarely comest thou / Spirit of Delight’? Clearly so, though a shocking number of commentators seem to have failed to notice.
Only in the Cello Concerto are Elgar’s sequences embraced without embarrassment or apology. It is, after all, widely considered to be the composer’s swansong as well as a kind of instrumental requiem for the lives and ideals that were destroyed in the carnage of the First World War. Lebrecht deems the concerto Elgar’s ‘masterpiece’ – after rejecting most of his other major works – and by way of explanation goes so far as to say: ‘Here, for once in Elgar’s life, he expressed himself without fear or favour.’ I’d put it a different way: here is a rarity among Elgar’s works because it’s one in which the music comes reasonably close to fulfilling general expectations and matching preconceived notions. There’s no doubt, for example, that those drooping sequences in the first movement are melancholy, or that the chattering Scherzo is like nervous laughter, and most concert programme or CD booklet notes will tell you as much. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Cello Concerto is somehow less subtle or inspired than any of Elgar’s other masterpieces. My point is simply that for a host of reasons – including its historical context, place in the repertoire (there are still only a handful of concertos for cellists to choose from) and, arguably, Jacqueline du Pré’s intimate association with the work – the Cello Concerto’s uniquely beautiful qualities are more easily appreciated.
Lebrecht makes another assertion that I initially recoiled from, but now I’m not so sure. ‘Much in Elgar is a matter of interpretation,’ he writes. ‘Performed by Englishmen as a quintessential Edwardian – bluff, expansive, somewhat lachrymose – his music is clad in a mask of his own making. A more likeable, and genuine, Elgar was discovered by foreign conductors – Nikisch, Monteux, Bernstein, Solti – who perceived the loneliness of his position and the intensity of his unfulfillable yearnings.’ As a generalisation, the statement is utterly indefensible (Boult’s and Barbirolli’s recordings alone provide ample evidence to the contrary, in fact), yet maybe there’s a grain of truth in it, too. For just as I’m convinced that I would have ‘found’ Elgar sooner had I grown up in the UK, I’m rather glad that I came to it onmy own terms.
‘Has Elgar achieved beauty?’ That’s the question Ralph Vaughan Williams put to himself shortly after Elgar’s death in an article entitled ‘What have we learnt from Elgar’ (published in a commemorative issue of Music and Letters in January 1935). Vaughan Williams answers in the affirmative, adding: ‘But to say that he has beauty is only half the truth: he has that peculiar kind of beauty which gives us, his fellow countrymen, a sense of something familiar – the intimate and personal beauty of our own fields and lanes; not the aloof and and unsympathetic beauty of glaciers and coral reefs and tropical forests’.
Familiarity is not always a friend of beauty, however. And for me, at least, the intimate and personal beauty of Elgar’s music is in its ‘sublime uncertainties’. Or, in other words, it has a lot to do with hope and very little to do with glory.