MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Elgar's Place in English Music by Meirion Bowen

British author and critic Meirion Bowen looks at the English music scene in Edward Elgar's day, and at Elgar's impact upon it. Andre Previn will conduct Elgar's First Symphony (the first time he's ever done so in Pittsburgh) at our concerts of October 31, November 1 and 2.

One of the cliches of music history is that no English music of significance exists between the death of Purcell (1695) and the rise to prominence of Edward Elgar at the start of the twentieth century. "Das Land ohne Musik" - "the land with-out music" - was the jibe that came from the nineteenth-century German conductor Hans von Bulow. But it was wide of the mark. If there were no English composers of great stature in the period, music-making itself was superabundant. Indeed, in Elgar's lifetime (1857-1934) a tremendous boom in musical activity occurred all over England. In 1830, there were perhaps six thousand people trying to make a living by playing ind teaching music. A century later there were fifty thousand. Towards the end of Elgar's life, the silent cinema provided some eighty percent of paid musical employment; and when "talkies" arrived in the autumn of 1929, some fifteen thousand jobs were irrevocably lost. In the 1930s, the young Michael Tippett (the still creative grand old man of British music today) formed and conducted the South London Orchestra, made up almost entirely of cinema and theater musicians thrown out of work at that time.

Although London was the dominant place of employment for musicians (and still is), provincial work steadily increased during the nineteenth century in the industrial Midlands and North of England. Instrumentalists were extensively employed in theaters, music halls, and ensembles, ranging in size and quality from gen-teei teatime groups and exotically uniformed "Viennese" or "Hungarian" bands to proto-symphony orchestras - of which one, at Bournemouth, still survives and flourishes. Railways lowered costs and greatly extended catchment areas for performers and audiences. By 1900 there were 142 special trains every Sunday for touring companies. The market for pianos, and therefore for lessons, gradually moved down the social scale. Massive, undiscriminating demand for cheap lessons in late Victorian and Edwardian society, became an enormous stimulus to the recruit- ment of musicians.

The dominant form of music-making in public was choral sing- ing and the most popular musical form the oratorio, after the man- ner of Handel. In the decades preceding the birth of Elgar, the sight-singing rnovement had made great advances indeed it became a mania. Choral societies were ubiquitous, and Crystal Pal- ace was the scene of epic performances of oratorios by Handel, Mendelssohn, Spohr, Gounod, Dvorak and English imitators, such as Sterndale Bennett, Charles Stanford, Hubert Parry, and Alfred Caul. To be respected as a composer in nineteenth-century England, it was essential to aim at the oratorio market. Orches- tral music was a financial risk; opera likewise, in addition to being somewhat suspect morally. Opera and orchestral concerts were nevertheless greatly supported by the public, which gave many of the leading continental composers of the period, including Ber- lioz and Debussy, their first taste of success in the musical world at large. But it was the oratorio that commanded respect, depend- ing as it did upon the audience's knowledge of the Bible. Elgar's career as a composer developed from within this tradition; and it was his ability to extend its scope that initiated a new era in English music. Elgar's early choral music enabled his reputation to burgeon during the 1890s; The Blacl< Knight was produced in April 1893 by the Worcester Festival Choral Society, and l906 saw the first performances of his oratorio The Light of Life in the Three Choirs Festival; and after the success of his Imperial March for the Diamond ]ubilee of Queen Victoria, the latter accepted the dedication of his Leeds Festival commission, Caractacus. Already Elgar was straying beyond the normal subject-matter for choral works, centering his attention on historical romances instead. it was in this period that he heard and studied Wagner for the first time and the advances in his technical skills, in form and orchestration, were suddenly quite marked - hence' two landmarks in English music, the Enigma Variations (1899) and The Dream of Gerontius (1900). In Enigma, Elgar demonstrated the sophisticated methods of thematic metamorphosis which he had learnt from Wagner. Wagnerian leitmotivs are also used to unify Gerontius; and in its through-composed format, he abandoned the Handelian conventions of clear-cut divisions into recitative, aria, and chorus, which all previous English oratorio composers had aped unquestioningly. To that extent, Gerontius, after its poorly rehearsed premiere at the Birmingham Festival in October 1900, made slow progress with English choral societies, who feared its technical difficulties. The turning-point in Elgar's career came with Gerontius's second German performance at Dusseldorf in May 1902, after which Richard Strauss toasted Elgar as "the first English progressivist" and called him "Meister." From Enigma onwards, Elgar poured out his music in a joyful, unselfconscious torrent of creation, proving above all in his sym- phonies and concertos that he had the technical ability to equal anything achieved by Strauss, Mahler, and other continental con- temporaries. His symphonies do not quite "embrace the world" as do Mahler's yet they balance public rhetoric and intimate reflec- tion in essentially the same way. Elgar's harmonic vocabulary is Wagnerian, yet entirely personal, using repetitive sequences to create an unending lyrical flow. His lyrical gift is indeed spacious, under the influence, no doubt, of Handel. National folk-song is peripheral to Elgar's music; there are hints ot' it in his Introduction and Allegro for strings, for instance, but never did he consciously, as Vaughan Williams and his followers did later, strive after a musical language based entirely on native folk-material. Popular music has much the same function in his work as it does in Mahler or - even Beethoven: to offer new psychological perspectives. Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches are offshoots of this tendency. They are not to be dismissed as expressions of mere jingoism, of English imperialist overkill, and they are not at all superficial, for they occasionally carry an undertow of disturbed, even sinister emotions. The paradox of Elgar's career is that having struggled for recognition and attained pre-eminence in English music before the First World War, he lived to see his music go temporarily out of fashion. The rhetoric and grandeur which composers across the entire European continent had favored before the War gave way in the post-war period to a new art of irony. There was even a movement to deflate this great national figure. It reached a climax of controversy in l931, when Edward J. Dent, then Professor of Music at Cambridge University, wrote an article on "Modern English Music" for a German Handbuch der Musikgeschichte which con- tained the following dismissal of Elgar: "He was a violin player by profession, and studied the works of Liszt, which were abhorrent to conservative academic musicians. He was, moreover, a Catholic, and more or less a self-taught man, who possessed little oF the literary culture of Parry and Stanford... For English ears, Elgar's music is too emotional and not quite free from vulgarity.... " This provoked protests in all the leading newspapers in England and Germany, signed by a host of leading musicians and artists, from William Walton to Bernard Shaw.

By and large, Elgar's music remained in the English repertory during the next few decades. Then, in the 1960s, a new generation of artists rediscovered him - Colin Davis, Andrew Davis, Bernard Haitink, Georg Solti, Jacqueline du Pre, and so on. Ken Russell directed for BBC TV a memorable film portraying the personal, wounded aspect of Elgar, distancing him altogether from Edwardian pomp and jingoism, and this made a great impact: Elgar acquired overnight a new listening public. When Elgar first visited America in 1907 and 1908 to conduct performances of his music [a trip which included his conducting the Pittsburgh Orchestra in the Enigma Variations both at Carnegie Music Hall and in Morgan-town), it was moderately well received. Now, American conductors, notably Andre Previn and Leonard Slatkin, are among his foremost advocates and interpreters. Elgar has had his imitators among the generations of English composers that followed him - Arthur Bliss, William Walton but ultimately he is inimitabie, simply standing on his own. And what Britten, Tippett, and a host of younger figures have admired is the sheer professionalism which he brought to a musical scene which had been hitherto predominantly amateur in its orientation and accomplishments.