The Magazine

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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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.