What’s the Matter with Elgar?

Sir Edward and Lady Alice Elgar. She got her own variation!(Photo: Bettman archive)
Sir Edward and Lady Alice Elgar. She got her own variation!(Photo: Bettman archive)

To me, Edward Elgar was all of the grit your teeth and think of the empire, twee stuff. Chop-chop, very nice, do get on with it and you won’t be staying long, will you?

This weekend the Columbus Symphony plays the Enigma Variations, meaning I had to re-acquaint myself with England’s first great composer since Henry Purcell. I suppose you have to love the composer of Land of Hope and Glory. I never did, resolute Irishman that I am and the CSO playing him on St. Patrick’s Day!

Then I listened. I really listened. That’s a gift of advancing age. What I heard in each of Elgar’s two symphonies was either a restless giant or a serene composer confident in what he was writing. Elgar is sometimes called ‘The English Mahler.’ They both wrote for large orchestras, that’s the extent of the similarities. Mahler did conduct Elgar’s music in New York, but nothing doing vice-versa.

The Enigma Variations made Elgar’s name and put British music on the map. It was Elgar who got British musical life out of churches and the hills and dales among the cow parsley. He was known to be moody and reticent in life, but in music he could be highly emotional–in-your-face emotional–and sometimes used a thick orchestration after Richard Strauss. But unlike Strauss-and Mahler-Elgar has the gift of melodic immediacy. He knew how to write a good tune. Land of Hope and Glory was too good not to recycle. From Pomp and Circumstance to Coronation Anthem to the setting beloved today, with words added at the suggestion of that delightful reprobate Edvard VII, for whom it was written.

Elgar, too, had the sense to know that, in his forties, it was now or never. He was a late bloomer who had been kidding about for years with musical bits. He married late, to a woman above his station and older than himself. He was horribly class conscious, calling himself “the piano maker’s son,” and a long and loving marriage was sniffed at by society.

Never mind society. Elgar produced an orchestral work founded upon a game. These are mini portraits in music of his wife and their circle of friends. The local constable who loved his amateur theatricals, a cleric who played glissandi on the piano and little else, and Elgar’s publisher Alfred Jaeger, who gave his name to the great Nimrod  (the mighty hunter, since jaeger is hunter in German).

I’d respect Elgar for his final work, his Cello Concerto, if nothing else. My time still has not come to embrace The Dream of Gerontius or The Apostles. These must be the gifts of my old age.
I listen to Elgar anew, and admire his boldness and, okay, his heart.

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The Columbus Symphony performs Elgar’s Enigma Variations, along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Stewart Goodyear is our pianist.  Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts.

Live broadcast Saturday night at 8 on Classical 101.

 

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