- Edward Elgar and his World
The sesquicentenary of Elgar's birth in 1857 has brought forth a heap of literature, some popularising (the Classic FM 'Friendly' Guide), some intensely scrutinising the music itself (for instance Elgar Studies, from Cambridge University Press, edited by J. P. E. Harper-Scott and myself). Remarkably, given the common perception that Elgar's music does not travel, the most comprehensive parade of performances took place in the U.S.A., at the Bard Music Festival. This annual event celebrates a single composer in the context of music by his contemporaries, and is accompanied by a volume of essays, with the generic title: 'X and his World' (no woman composer has yet been honoured, and Elgar is the first chosen Briton).
Byron Adams, the festival's Scholar in Residence, edits this well-conceived blend of work by established Elgarians and scholars previously less associated with him. The essays are free-standing but organised in sections, partly by geography. Other than two spells in London, the first short, the second divided between London and [End Page 161] Sussex, Elgar lived in the West Country (his birthplace Worcester, Malvern, and Hereford). Part I of Elgar and his World is headed 'Worcester' and Part III 'London'; Part II is 'Documents' and Part IV a 'Summation' by Leon Botstein, an artistic director of the Bard Festival. But questions about the composer's cultural ambiance, populism, empire, and the war, recur throughout, and the essays in Parts I and III by Charles Edward McGuire and Rachel Cowgill benefit from being read together, not least because – one of several indications of responsible editing – Cowgill was evidently able to see McGuire's paper before finalising her own. In another revealing cross-reference, Cowgill alludes to H. G. Wells's wartime novel Mr Britling Sees It Through; in Part I Matthew Riley's 'Elgar the Escapist' moves on from themes he has dealt with elsewhere (notably in his recent book, also from CUP, Edward Elgar and the Nostalgic Imagination), by an intriguing comparison with Wells's novel of escape, The History of Mr Polly. Wells, although only a few years younger than Elgar, is perhaps not the obvious literary parallel, but if anything that makes the comparisons more instructive. Cowgill's splendid exposition is concentrated on Elgar's Binyon triptych The Spirit of England, a work once popular, then severely neglected, and now rehabilitated as Elgar's most significant composition of the war years. She identifies it as a 'War Requiem', in which Elgar embodied a nationalmood – 'righteous idealism tempered by grief' – while reengaging with essentially Catholic 'eschatological themes familiar from The Dream of Gerontius [. . . ] afterlife, purgatory, and redemption', thus exploring 'aspects of his own spirituality in music without disturbing Protestant sensibilities'.
Byron Adams has never been afraid to raise the hackles of the Elgar-lover who associates the composer mainly with an imagined Edwardian pastoral golden age, and particularly with a brand of nationalism to which, in his musical practice, he made virtually no contribution. That Elgar's music is 'quintessentially English' is a commonplace, but not necessarily a truism; beside Holst and Vaughan Williams, for two, he must be heard as quintessentially, and eclectically, European. Adams positions him realistically in a trenchant introduction, which also points out how this lover of the West Country 'ached to get to London'. In his own chapter, 'The Persistence of Memory', Adams emphasises the apparently working-class origins of Elgar's parents, although for the period of his upbringing the more usual classification 'lower middle' seems right (not manually labouring, some intellectual interests, with servants), as does the discussion of Elgar's self-education, which (and not only in music) was more important than his schooling. Hismother may have been an upwardly mobile barmaid, [End Page 162] but she loved Longfellow and from that literary influence her son never recovered. Adams also discourses brilliantly on contemporary perceptions of the musically beautiful, and on Elgar's musical self-revelations.