Notes 60.1 (2003) 158-160
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Elgar's Oratorios: The Creation of an Epic Narrative. By Charles Edward McGuire. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2002. [xvi, 339 p. ISBN 0-7546-0271-0. $79.95.] Music examples, charts, bibliography, index.
Edward Elgar's reputation as the first British composer of international stature since Henry Purcell rests more on his instrumental music than on his choral music. Generally speaking, it is the "Enigma" Variations and the symphonies, the concertos and chamber music—and not the oratorios and cantatas—that are most prominently featured on radio and concert programs and in written commentaries about the composer.
How fine it is, then, to have a book devoted solely to the choral music, especially one that stresses the centrality of these works to Elgar's artistic achievement. Charles McGuire's focus is on the four sacred oratorios Elgar produced just as he was emerging on the international scene—The Light of Life (1896), The Dream of Gerontius (1900), The Apostles (1903), and The Kingdom (1906). The emphasis is well chosen, for the oratorios offer some of the clearest insight into Elgar's complex personality and manifold influences, notably his compositional ambition, his debt to Richard Wagner, and his profound Christian faith. Even more important, the focus on the oratorios permits McGuire to examine Elgar in a specifically English context. One of the best chapters in the book considers the background of the nineteenth-century British oratorio and touches on such diverse topics as the Tonic Sol-Fa method, the rise of the music festival, and the role of middle- and working-class notions of "self-improvement" in the success of the genre as a whole. This concern to contextualize Elgar's oratorios even prompts the author to undertake in appendix B the gargantuan task of examining 289 separate large-scale choral works—not all of them [End Page 158] oratorios—performed in Great Britain between 1730 and 1944. (Works by both British and foreign-born composers are considered.) Investigating these works for patterns of narrative and scene structure, among other things, he is able to establish the normative practices defining oratorio composition that Elgar would have known and absorbed from his work as a provincial violinist and conductor during the early stages of his career.
Establishing this practice is crucial, for McGuire's main argument is that (with the exception of the early and derivative The Light of Life) Elgar's oratorios represent a quantum leap from past oratorios in matters of structure and organization. Important here is Elgar's gradual abandonment of detachable "numbers," that old standby of oratorio construction, replacing them with large-scale movements and "tableaux" tied together by a seamless web of Wagner-like reminiscence themes. But even more fundamental, in McGuire's view, are the innovations that Elgar makes in the narrative structure of his oratorios. Whereas most nineteenth-century oratorios employ a limited number of narrative types—such as "vivid description," where a character relates action as it is occurring, or "framing narration," where an identified narrator relates past events to the audience—Elgar's oratorios use everything from hidden narrators to multiple narrators to no narrator at all. Indeed, McGuire's point is that these changes in narrative strategy themselves contribute to the story and long-range dramatic effect of the oratorios as a whole.
It is a compelling argument, especially in view of the painstaking care Elgar took over the construction of his libretti for The Apostles and The Kingdom. The first two of a projected trilogy of oratorios, these "epic" works—which, one suspects, provide the real justification for this study—sprang from the depths of Elgar's Catholic faith and mark the culmination of the composer's narrative innovations. McGuire provides an absorbing account of Elgar's engagement with the Bible and contemporaneous biblical scholarship, and makes a persuasive case for his consistency and skill in marshalling Old and New Testament texts. He further demonstrates the new flexibility of Elgar's leitmotivs in these works, and indicates the complex ways these contribute to the unfolding of the...