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In Tune With the Times

A second look at Edward Elgar.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Edward Elgar and His World

Edited by Byron Adams

Princeton, 448 pp., $22.95

Musicians and music institutions, it seems, are always eager to celebrate major anniversaries of major composers.

Within the last decade or so we've marked a Brahms Year (1997, the 100th anniversary of his death), a Bach Year (2000, the 250th anniversary of his death), and a Mozart Year (2006, the 250th anniversary of his birth), and the music festivals and scholarly conferences spawned by these celebrations have offered rich opportunities to survey composers' lives and works and weigh how their stock is doing in recent days. The festivals, in particular, have also provided the chance to scrutinize the composers' lesser-known creations, to see if we've missed anything in our rush to hear the blockbuster masterpieces one more time.

Although you wouldn't have known it here in the United States, we recently concluded an Elgar Year. Born 150 years ago last June 2, Sir Edward Elgar tends to be appreciated chiefly in Britain, where he is hailed as the founder of the 20th-century English Music Renaissance, the first great native-born composer since Henry Purcell (who died in 1695). In music, the classical and romantic periods seem to have passed Britain by (the Germans called it "The Land without Music"). Elgar's Enigma Variations, cello and violin concertos, and string works, written at the beginning of the modern era, found a place in the international repertory and served to reestablish England's reputation on the music scene.

Still, were it not for the ubiquitous use of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at graduation ceremonies, Elgar would not be a household name in America.

Unfazed by the lack of interest in Elgar here, the Bard Music Festival, led by its artistic director Leon Botstein, devoted two weekends of concerts last summer to the composer's works. The festival not only resurrected pieces rarely heard on American soil but also produced this handsome volume of essays by a dozen scholars, who strive to assess Elgar's place in music history. Given the paradoxes in his life and works, this is not an easy task.

Edward Elgar was born in 1857 into a solid working-class family in Broadheath, near Worcester in west-central England. He studied music with his father, a journeyman musician, and eventually succeeded him as organist of St. George's (Roman Catholic) Church in Worcester. Aside from a few professional violin lessons in London, Elgar was self-taught. After working his way through local music organizations, as conductor of the Worcester Glee Club, as "composer in ordinary" at the Powick County Lunatic Asylum, and then as organist at St. George's, he eventually moved to London in 1889 at age 32.

In Worcester, Elgar had depended heavily on private students for income; in London, none materialized, and within two years he was forced to leave the city to live in Malvern, where he eventually served as conductor of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Orchestra.

A series of successful cantatas and oratorios written for provincial choir festivals--The Black Knight, Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Caractacus, and finally his choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, completed in 1900--brought him recognition. The Enigma Variations, so called because each section is prefaced by the initials of fancied names of Elgar's friends who are portrayed in the music, and his symphonies and concertos, brought him fame. A series of rousing marches--most notably the Imperial March for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the Coronation March for George V, and the Pomp and Circumstance marches--brought him glory.

With these successes Elgar was able to return to London in triumph, moving into Severn, a graciously appointed, custom-built house in Hampstead. He was knighted in 1904, and awarded honorary degrees from Cambridge, Oxford, Aberdeen, Leeds, and Yale, which he visited in 1905, on the first of several trips to America. He was also appointed Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, where he presented a series of lectures on the state of music in Britain. Covent Garden devoted a three-day festival entirely to his music, the first time an English composer was so honored. After the death of his wife in 1919 he returned to Worcester, where he died in 1934.

With such a triumphant climb, what more could Elgar want? Respect and inner peace, one suspects. For although he was feted in Britain as the Empire's most important composer, he nevertheless remained an outsider, frequently haunted by inner doubts. As a Catholic, he stood apart from England's Protestant majority, and as the son of a jack-of-all-trades musician (as late as 1897 he termed himself "a piano-tuner's son"), he remained outside the British upper class. Moreover, as an autodidact who built his career writing for amateur choruses, he was slow to find acceptance in the European community of professional composers.

The bulk of the essays in Edward Elgar and His World focus on these obstacles, which may have been responsible for producing a man with a dual persona. On the one hand there is the Worcestershire Elgar, who cherished privacy, loved riddles (his musical scores are filled with cryptic quotations), praised country life, and wrote gentle string music. On the other hand, there is the Lord Elgar, who coveted London social gatherings, championed pure instrumental music, went to the theater, and wrote bombastic marches.

Will the real Elgar stand up?

As Daniel M. Grimley notes in an essay on Elgar and populism, Elgar appears to have reveled in his ability to write rousing melodies, once remarking to a friend that he had just composed "a tune that will knock 'em--knock 'em flat." Just how flat could be seen at the London premiere of the first Pomp and Circumstance March in 1901. The conductor, Henry Wood, reported:

The people simply rose and yelled. I had to play it again--with the same result. In fact, they refused to let me go on with the program. After considerable delay, while the audience roared its applause, I went off and fetched Harry Dearth who was to sing Hiawatha's Vision [the next piece on the program]. But they would not listen. Merely to restore order, I played the march a third time. And that, I may say, was the one and only time in the history of the Promenade concerts that an orchestra item was accorded a double encore.

The lesson was not lost on Elgar, who wrote four more Pomp and -Circumstance marches over the next three decades.

While Elgar was enjoying the British acclaim, his more progressive colleagues on the continent were taking hits. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande was booed mercilessly and La Mer dubbed Le Mal de Mer. Richard Strauss's Salome was termed disgusting and degenerate. And Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was described as the glorification of the stuff filthy pencils write on lavatory walls. And this is to say nothing of the riot provoked by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at its first performance in Paris in 1913.

As Grimley points out, Elgar may have complained to a friend that the audience at the premiere of his Second Symphony sat and listened "like stuffed pigs," but his fundamentally conservative and comfortable idiom never incurred the wrath leveled at his pathbreaking contemporaries. By producing works that were distinctly British--"at once breezy and beefy," as a writer in the Manchester Guardian put it--Elgar built a strong and loyal following.

If he was attacked for anything, it was for appearing to embrace British imperialism and serving as its chief musical propagandist. Works such as The Empire March, The Crown of India (which included the song "The Rule of England"), and the Pomp and Circumstance marches stirred patriotic feelings about British rule. The famous trio from Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1--the heroic melody whose crescendos spur the swelling of parents' chests at American commencements--was so pride-inducing that Elgar recycled it to great effect in the Coronation Ode as a hymn, "The Land of Hope and Glory." This quickly became the unofficial anthem of the Tory party. Not many composers used the designation -nobilmente in their scores.

The remainder of Pomp and Circumstance No. 1--the part unfamiliar to most Americans--is a brash, frenetically paced march. Grimley calls this "drum-stirring music," but it goes beyond that. It sounds mechanical and angular, like the gnashing of gear-teeth or the pumping of pistons. Elgar seems to be portraying the metallic edge of modernism, something akin to military machinery throttling up for action. There is no romance here, no nobilmente, only the stark realism of 20th-century warfare.

It is lamentable that Elgar's far gentler choral works are seldom performed here. They show a very different side of the composer, a man seeking universal peace and transcendence. We see this serenity in Elgar's string music and in the pastoral passages of the well-known concertos, symphonies, and Enigma Variations. But it is especially striking in his choral works. Several of his best pieces--The Black Knight, The Saga of King Olaf, and to some extent The Apostles--are based on the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As Leon Botstein notes in a summary essay, although Longfellow and Elgar worked at opposite ends of the 19th century, they were kindred spirits in many regards: Both wished to enlighten, educate, and unify their audiences. Longfellow's poetry, with its lyrical, easy-to-memorize verse, opened the world of classical learning to middle-class readers, while its surface propriety veiled intense and vaguely erotic emotions. Beginning with Hyperion (which Elgar cited throughout his life) and continuing through The Song of Hiawatha and Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow created a poetic lingua franca for English-speaking readers that was almost as popular in Britain as it was in the United States.

If Longfellow invented poetry as a public idiom, as Christoph Irmscher has claimed, Elgar similarly wished to break down the barriers of high culture and create music that would speak to general listeners. In his lectures at the University of Birmingham, Elgar lamented the poor taste of British audiences and advocated state-subsidized music, a national opera, and the construction of large public halls in every town--halls that could host cultural events at affordable prices. Elgar's choral works, often based on historical romances or the Bible, capture this populist spirit. Perfectly tailored to choral-society performances, they engender communal warmth and catharsis. It is difficult to believe they were written by a man who relished being knighted.

Elgar's crowning choral work is The Dream of Gerontius. Based on the doctrinal Roman Catholic poem of John Henry Newman, it portrays the death of an old man and his rebirth in the next world. Elgar's setting is starkly dramatic, with Wagnerian leitmotivs, majestic melodies, offstage choruses, and swelling orchestral accompaniment conspiring to produce a monumental effect. Although Elgar claimed that the work was humanistic in nature, and represented man's universal plight, Gerontius was nevertheless banned for many years at Gloucester Cathedral for being "too Catholic." One senses that Elgar was attempting to create a pan-Christian work, in the fashion of Bach's B-Minor Mass, rather than a Catholic polemic. Gerontius has been termed the greatest English oratorio, and at the end of the manuscript Elgar quoted from John Ruskin: "This is the best of me."

At the Bard Festival Botstein and his band of musicians performed The Dream of Gerontius and other choral and chamber works that fell into disfavor in the 20th century's rush to embrace a more dissonant, atonal idiom. Now that such music has moved into a postmodern phase, and Richard -Danielpour, Bright Sheng, and other composers are giving us plush, tonal scores once again, perhaps it is time to return to the real thing. Accepting and maybe even embracing the paradoxes posed by the patriotic marches, we might want to consider giving Sir Edward Elgar's best pieces another look, even if the Elgar Year is behind us.

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and professor of music history at Rutgers.