Why Edward Elgar was more than just an English gentleman

Andrew Farach-Colton
Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The idea that Edward Elgar wrote restrained, old-fashioned music can still persist abroad, but many international musicians are discovering that his music that is well worth championing, writes Andrew Farach-Colton

Edward Elgar (photo: Alamy)
Edward Elgar (photo: Alamy)

‘I swear that only in Imperialist England could such a work be tolerated,’ Benjamin Britten wrote in his diary following a performance of Edward Elgar’s First Symphony at the 1935 London Proms. Britten was hardly alone in reacting with such distaste. A few years earlier, composer-conductor Constant Lambert claimed to be speaking ‘for the present generation’ when he described Elgar’s music as having ‘an almost intolerable air of smugness, self-assurance and autocratic benevolence’. Other musicians seemed more flummoxed than contemptuous. In 1949, for instance, Sir Thomas Beecham complained that ‘the British public had placed [Elgar] on a pedestal higher than that occupied by any native composer since Purcell’.

British musicians eventually came around, of course, and Elgar is now rightly celebrated not just for his achievements but for his genius. Even Britten had a change of heart, and in his later years gave us insightful, impassioned recordings of the Introduction and Allegro for strings and The Dream of Gerontius. Beyond the British Isles, however, prejudices against Elgar persist, despite the fact that his advocates have always been an international lot. Hans Richter, who led the premieres of Wagner’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, as well as Brahms’s Second Symphony, also conducted the premieres of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Gerontius and the First Symphony. Mahler and Toscanini both had the Enigma Variations in their repertoire. In 1905, Fritz Kreisler told a British journalist: ‘If you want to know whom I consider to be the greatest living composer, I say without hesitation, Elgar … I say this to please no one; it is my own conviction.’ And yet, here we are, more than a century later, and – with the exception of Germany, perhaps – Elgar remains a hard sell outside the UK. Why?

For Daniel Barenboim, who has championed Elgar’s music for nearly half a century now, part of the answer lies in the historical context. ‘Remember that Elgar was much more famous in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century than in England. The performance of Gerontius in Düsseldorf in 1902 opened many doors and many ears for him in Germany, and he became a great figure in England only after that. But he has suffered from the fact that there had really been no – how shall I put it? – substantial English composer since Henry Purcell. Therefore, the adjective “English” is always attached to his name: “the English composer Elgar”. You would never say “the French composer Debussy” or “the German composer Brahms” or “the Italian composer Puccini”. And it was difficult because music was not associated with the English.’

In other words, Elgar’s music was obliged to define what ‘English music’ sounded like to an international audience that did not view the English as being particularly musical, at least in a creative sense. Julian Rushton, an English musicologist and Elgar scholar, argues that Elgar was in fact ‘quintessentially European’, and ‘the only reason his music sounds English is that it sounds like Elgar, whom we know to be English’. Anthony Burgess puts it more amusingly: ‘I know that Elgar is not manic enough to be Russian, not witty or pointilliste enough to be French, not harmonically simple enough to be Italian, and not stodgy enough to be German. We arrive at his Englishry by pure elimination.’ Indeed, Elgar claimed to have absolutely no interest in native folksong or in the work of English Renaissance masters like Tallis and Dowland. An autodidact, he learned his craft through studying and performing music by the great Central European masters, and their influence is readily evident. Still, Elgar has his own, immediately recognisable sound. Elgar always sounds like Elgar, even in an early work like the Froissart Overture. And to many, there is – by necessity, Rushton might say – something intrinsically English about this sound. Or is there?

Let’s start with Elgar’s greatest hit, the one everyone knows even if they don’t know that Elgar wrote it. ‘Elgar’s reputation is overwhelmed by the cliché that derives from the first Pomp and Circumstance March,’ says the Swiss-born, American conductor and musicologist Leon Botstein. ‘It’s associated with pompous British Imperialism. It’s viewed to be Victorian, and Elgar likely suffers from our prejudice against Victorian aesthetics. Certainly, he suffered during the period after the First World War when Art Nouveau, Beardsley, that entire Victorian visual aesthetic, was already way out of fashion. It was considered decorative, stylised.’ And, of course, it is precisely this ‘smug’, ‘Imperialist’ character that caused Britten and Lambert such revulsion.

Elgar’s exterior persona reinforced the cliché. He was born neither an aristocrat nor moneyed, but rather achieved his position in society through his music. He longed for his work to be understood and appreciated, and he also wanted to be esteemed as a gentleman. These desires became intertwined and drove his actions both in public as well as private, and thus he chased after honours and accolades as proud evidence of his genius and industriousness. How could this not be reflected in his art? ‘His music can certainly be jingoistic in a kind of Victorian way,’ says American conductor David Zinman. ‘But this was his nature. He came across as very broad and bluff, but he had this very soft inside.’ Yet, to see inside, beyond that bluff exterior, required the belief that it was worth the effort – or even to acknowledge that there was anything there to look for. Zinman remembers a rehearsal of the First Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra some years ago. ‘I was telling them a little bit about General Gordon and the background of the work, and one of the horn players shouted, “You mean General Boredom, don’t you?” But I think that attitude from orchestra musicians is gone now, thankfully.’

Conductor Vasily Petrenko believes that one of the reasons Russian audiences – and some Russian musicians, too – fail to experience the full emotional impact of Elgar’s music may be due to essential cultural differences. ‘If, for instance, you compare Elgar and Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky’s emotions are very open. You can sense immediately if the music is crying or happy, dramatic or full of fun. It’s all very clear, sometimes to the point of being hysterical. In Elgar, however, quite often it’s hidden or restrained. It has this power inside but it doesn’t appear on the outside that often. I was discussing this in Moscow with musicians in the orchestra, asking what they thought of the Elgar symphonies. They said the music was not emotionally elaborate enough, at least not enough to be visible. They feel that it’s great music but that audiences don’t immediately understand its emotional impact, which is probably why it’s not played that often. That, and it is difficult to play.’

Petrenko adds that there is far less ‘politeness’ in Russian society than in British society. ‘On the other hand, people think about the English as being noble, restrained, and trying to put things in order, yet behind that – inside – there’s such an intense fire. And when the emotions finally do come out, sometimes it’s outrageous. Russians let their emotions out quickly and then they are just as quickly forgotten. In English culture, that holding back and then the outburst – it’s not forgotten. And that’s what you find in Elgar’s symphonies.’

Cellist Johannes Moser, born in Germany to a German father and Canadian mother, looks at the issue from a different angle. ‘Like so many of his European peers, Elgar gave us a portrait of his time. But he’s doing more than that. He’s very smart and is able to sneak in uncomfortable details without them being noticed on first sight. I love this sense of a double layer, and of course it’s typical for all the great symphonic composers. You can always dig deeper and find more. Look at the opening of the Cello Concerto, for example: the first statement is so strong, there’s so much conviction. Then it turns to this soft melody, like a sicilienne. It feels so simple to me and yet somehow dangerous at the same time, as if something is lurking, building up. This double layer is fascinating to me; there are these different intentions working at the same time.’

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein sees the Cello Concerto as standing apart from Elgar’s previous work. ‘In the Second Symphony, for example, there is a kind of grandiose character which can lead one to think about this massive British Empire. But in the Concerto, he transcends that. There’s no façade of politeness. What we hear is honesty, earnestness, and a lack of sentimentality. When I think about the third movement and also the very end of the work, I imagine Elgar staring at himself in the mirror, almost unable to speak. And what I find so striking, so amazing, is that he is baring his soul yet it is very private at the same time. If we’re talking about a double layer or duality in his music, it’s this.’

The Cello Concerto has had international success not just because it’s a relatively compact, elegiac masterpiece, but also because – let’s be honest – a cellist’s repertoire is limited. The Violin Concerto is far less frequently heard, due to its length and technical demands. But how to explain the rarity of the Enigma Variations? Botstein thinks that this work suffers the same fate as Brahms’s Haydn Variations in that, with the current programming model, both are neither long enough to end a concert nor short enough to open one.

As for the perceived indifference to Elgar’s music, Botstein makes a compelling point: ‘Elgar lacks the exotic quality. Dvořák was successful in Germany because his music was considered exotic (and it annoyed the hell out of him, actually). Sibelius was exotic in his cultivation of a Northern spirituality, one might say. Exoticism certainly worked for Tchaikovsky, as well as many others. But England wasn’t thought of as an exotic place – not for Americans, certainly. And this plays into the fact that Elgar is not credited as being a musical innovator. Sibelius was viewed to have an original harmonic and melodic vocabulary. Elgar was seen as Victorian.’

Barenboim brings forth a strikingly similar argument. ‘I think Elgar suffered from the fact that he was considered not modern enough for those looking at the music of the future and not international enough for the conservatives. This destiny has stood in the way of other composers, too, like Busoni, for example.’

But Elgar was modern enough, at least as far as Botstein is concerned: ‘I believe Elgar was in fact a very imaginative, adventuresome, progressive composer with a distinctive aesthetic.’ As to the oft-repeated complaint that Elgar ‘padded’ his scores with repeated sequences, Botstein responds: ‘He uses repetition and sequences to set up the expectation of predictability and then defeat it. And if we consider that the normative in composition involves the absence of repetition – what Schoenberg termed “developing variation” – well, that’s only one aesthetic criterion. Wagner, via Liszt, used repetition to brilliant effect, and Elgar learned from this. Gerontius and the symphonies don’t condense time, they create an expansive landscape of sound which extends musical time.’

Botstein continues: ‘Going to a concert, for Elgar’s audiences, allowed them the ability to construct a narrative, privately, by hearing music – listening as daydreaming. Schoenberg, and to some extent Brahms, privileged the idea of variation, which meant that the experience of listening was to follow the evolution of musical thought and the virtuosity of musical invention. Elgar was slightly more concerned with narrative, and that’s what’s so interesting about the Enigma Variations. It’s a perfect synthesis of the Lisztian and the Brahmsian, the two so-called opposite trends of 19th-century late-Romantic aesthetics. And that’s what Elgar feels like to me: a kind of brilliant synthetic figure. In the Enigma Variations, you have all of the virtuosity of thematic transformation at the same time that you have characterisation of people and a story being told.’

This narrative aspect of Elgar’s style likely has implications for its interpretation, too, and it’s worth pondering what effect different performance styles might have had on the reception of his works. ‘Everyone has to find their own way, their own relationship with the music,’ Barenboim muses. ‘I think that, very often in performances I’ve heard of Elgar’s music, there is not enough attention to the harmonic progression. Sometimes the harmonies are quite simple and straightforward, like at the beginning of the First Symphony, then they move into strange and personal modulations. This is a very important element. The other is a question of that “Victorian” grandeur which is very often exaggerated. And I’m thinking that in both symphonies there are so many passages which repeat themselves at a very loud dynamic. You have to be extremely careful not to give your all the first time around because a few bars later it comes back a second, and very often a third time. It’s important, in order to achieve a strategic understanding of the movement, to have the capacity to let the dynamics of the music grow. So careful observation of the dynamics is vital, and Elgar was particularly meticulous in his dynamic markings.’ Zinman, too, notes the unusual precision of Elgar’s instructions. ‘His scores are really wonderful to look at,’ he enthuses. ‘They’re so clearly written,with attention to detail, to every note.’

But the finer points aren’t everything, says Petrenko: ‘I think the key is in how much attention you pay to the details versus the long structures. If you focus too much attention on the small phrases, you may lose the overall architectural shape. The symphonies, especially, require such a long perspective. But if you just drive through without sufficient attention to the details, the music also sounds wrong. So a certain balance needs to be kept, but this can vary greatly from conductor to conductor.’

According to Weilerstein, instrumentalists face similar issues. ‘There’s a fluidity in Elgar which I think is important because it speaks to his refusal to be self-pitying, even if the music is romantic and very intimate or even tragic.’ Moser agrees and feels that there needs to be more questioning of interpretative traditions. ‘I have noticed that in the first rehearsal, orchestras will automatically play in a certain tempo that’s not necessarily related to Elgar’s markings. So I believe there must a strong tradition of how Elgar is ‘supposed’ to be played that, for example, supersedes the fact that in the opening of the Cello Concerto he writes moderato with a metronome mark of 66, not andante. This goes for conductors, too, of course. I think it’s healthy to ask if the tradition is simply a matter of comfort worn in over the years or is there some meta-information that should be taken into account.’ Moser says he has studied both of Beatrice Harrison’s ‘wonderful’ recordings of the Cello Concerto and, even with the composer holding the baton, there are deviations in tempo. ‘She takes the first movement slower than it’s marked, and that was a surprise to me.’

Zinman says he’s listened to every last one of Elgar’s recordings, and he too has noted tempo discrepancies. ‘He may have been influenced by the fact that he had to fit music onto one side of a record, so maybe the tempos are a little fast. But what’s wonderful about it is that it’s not indulgent at all and really shows his character. It also shows the style of orchestral playing at that time, with the sliding from note to note. Elgar was a very good violinist himself, and often in his scores you find his fingerings for string passages. I always insist these fingerings are played, even if they’re a little awkward, because in order to do them, you have to slide.’

There’s no question that Elgar’s extensive recorded legacy is an invaluable document, but does it offer clues beyond a glimpse into early 20th-century performance tradition that might help us to gain easier access to the music’s emotional heart? Petrenko is slightly skeptical of putting too much faith in the recordings. ‘Yes, one can always get interesting ideas from composer-conductors, and for me it’s as if I’m getting the composer’s intentions first-hand.’ He adds, though, that he’s not sure that Elgar was a great conductor. ‘There are moments in the recordings where the orchestra seems to be compromising because they were not able to understand his gesticulations. So for my own interpretations I take some of his tempos, some of his phrasing and articulation, but there are also times where I have to make things a little easier and more logical for the orchestra.’

Barenboim is more sanguine: ‘Elgar’s recordings have a sense of forward movement that is absolutely unique and unequalled by anyone who has played or recorded these pieces since,’ he says. ‘He brings out a nervous quality in the music, and I’ve learned tremendously from these documents. One can hear that he was in total command of the orchestra.’ So while Elgar might have liked to portray himself as the very model of a stiff-upper-lipped English squire, his own music-making – with that consistent, persistent ‘nervous quality’ Barenboim identifies – reveals a more complicated reality. And isn’t this conflict an essential part of what Petrenko so neatly describes as the ‘power inside’ Elgar’s music?

While I was writing this article, I happened upon an essay in American author Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, in which she describes her fascination with the history of polar exploration and her ‘especially tender feelings’ for Captain Robert Falcon Scott. ‘Americans’, she writes, ‘admire success. Englishmen admire heroic failure.’ In his greatest music, such as the Second Symphony – composed at the same time that Scott was embarked on the tragic Terra Nova Expedition – Elgar conveys a poignant sense of heroic striving and tenacity that ends not in ticker-tape jubilation but noble acceptance. In one of Scott’s final diary entries, the explorer wrote: ‘I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.’ What better encapsulation not only of what makes Elgar English, but what makes Elgar Elgar.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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