Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007


June 2 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of England's greatest symphonic composer, Sir Edward Elgar, 1857-1934.

Though, as you can see, he projected the image of an Edwardian toff to the nth degree, he was actually something of a self-made man, being born to a family "in trade" -- and Roman Catholic too.

Yes -- the ultra-Englishman who composed the Pomp and Circumstance Marches was RC! There is dispute about the nature of his faith, but he never made the "obvious" move for a socially ambitious artist, which would have been to pitch it and join the Established Church.

Also, one of his first "hits" was The Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio set to a dramatic poem by Cardinal Newman about death, the first steps of the afterlife, and Purgatory.

England is going ga-ga about the anniversary. When I was there last month, the Daily Telegraph ran a series of essays by Elgar interpreters, including Dame Janet Baker on singing the Angel in Gerontius, and Julian Lloyd Webber (Andrew's brother, a cellist) about playing the Cello Concerto.

As Torygraph columnist Simon Heffer puts it here, it is sometimes said of Elgar that he "wrote the soundtrack of the Empire." Yet he did so without constant (or indeed, any) recourse to folk tunes, and by cultivating, in an English idiom, the German high-romantic school of grand orchestral writing (e.g. Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Richard Strauss -- the last of whom hailed Elgar as a fellow "progressive," by which he meant Wagnerian high romantic).

But what does one mean by saying Elgar "wrote the soundtrack of the Empire," or that he used an "English idiom"? If there's an answer, it's probably too technically musicological for me; Heffer rightly notes:
His musical style is mainly German, suffused with Wagner and Brahms. But he made his music seem English to the English, which is not the least of his achievements.
Heffer goes on:
In the 15 years between the première of the Enigma Variations in 1899 and the start of the First World War, he composed some of the greatest musical works not just in the English canon, but in the world. After the Variations, there was the Dream of Gerontius; four Pomp and Circumstance Marches (a fifth appeared in 1930); two majestic symphonies; a stunning violin concerto; and sundry other oratorios, songs and orchestral works.

It is easy to see why, even before his death, Elgar was already being discounted, and encouraging detractors (usually from among the narrow-minded and the ignorant). He was the ultimate Edwardian, and splendour and opulence radiate from much of his music. From the aftermath of the First World War to beyond the collapse of the Empire, the soundtrack seemed to some to be inflated, pompous, dated and irrelevant.

Well, the fact that England is one big Elgarfest this month shows that it's the detractors who are inflated, pompous, dated and irrelevant. Some of them have given up, urging their own kind to cease rejecting Elgar and instead "reclaim" him from "the conservatives." E.g. this piece by Martin Kettle in The Guardian, fisked a few days later by this one by Martin Henderson in the Telegraph.

Back to Heffer for a moment:

For all his Germanic influences, [Elgar] was deeply original. For all the imperial bluster, he was lyrical and sensitive (even when being imperial: there really are few tunes quite so ravishing as the trio of the fourth Pomp and Circumstance March). For all his perceived starchiness - the buttoned-up tweeds and the walrus moustache - he was intensely passionate: listen to the Cello Concerto as the expression of the shock of the First World War and the decline of his wife, or to the opening of the Violin Concerto for unrestrained passion.
Yes, or just about any part of the First Symphony. Or the Second Symphony's second movement: a hymn of national mourning at the death of King Edward, and also a passionate personal portrayal of the sort of grief that breaks through all English restraints.

Or the mysterious Fifth Pomp and Circumstance March. Heffer is right -- tunes don't get much better than the "trio" (or slow section) of Number Four. And the really famous one, the one used at graduations -- that's the trio of Number One. Numbers 1-4 were all written in Elgar's -- and the Empire's -- heyday, the first decade of the 20th century. But P&C #5 didn't come along until 1930, long after Elgar had basically stopped composing, and long after critical disfavor had closed in on him.

So what's up with #5? Well, listen to all five in the best recording available -- that would be the one by Daniel Barenboim, the only conductor who plays them not as marches but as small symphonic pieces -- and see if it doesn't seem to you, as it does to me, that the trio of #5 is an expression of tragedy and resignation almost on a level with the second movement of the Second Symphony.

For the two Symphonies, I recommend Sinopoli (this set also gives you his wonderful reading of P&C Nos. 1 and 4); also Barbirolli (this set also gives you Enigma and other goodies). Barenboim's and Solti's recordings are good too, and (like Sinopoli) they give the lie to the notion that only Englishmen care about Elgar. (Sir John Barbirolli was English. RC, but English. He once conducted Part One of Gerontius for Pope Pius XII; afterwards the Holy Father said to Sir John, "Figlio mio, e questo un capolavoro supremo.") And let's not forget that other walrus-mustached Elgarian, Sir Adrian Boult: 1st Symphony here, 2nd here.

My preference for the Elgar conducting of the late Giuseppe Sinopoli is very subjective. All I can say is, when I listened to the First Symphony over and over as a 17-year-old, I wondered, how does he (meaning Elgar) know? Thirty-plus years later, when Sinopoli's recording appeared, I again asked, he does he (meaning Sinopoli) know? It was the same shock of recognition. (Ah, you say, but whose recording was I listening to when I was 17? Barbirolli's!)

For Enigma, avoid Solti's: he tries the experiment of playing the famous "Nimrod" movement fast instead of slow -- and it fails. Go with Sinopoli, Barbirolli, Barenboim, or Boult. (Note that some of these give you the Cello Concerto as well.)

The Dream of Gerontius: Benjamin Britten conducted a performance starring his extremely good friend Peter Pears, and I don't think it's been equalled; you also get John Shirley-Quirk as the Priest. Barbirolli's is highly regarded, not least because of Janet Baker; this one is great too -- beautifully meditative conducting by Richard Hickox -- though the upper reaches of the Angel's part are a strain for Felicity Palmer.

Go you likewise, and Vary your Enigma.