In Tune With the Times
A second look at Edward Elgar.
Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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.