The Growing Significance of Elgar

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Broadcaster and author of an illustrated biography of Elgar, Simon Mundy discusses the composer's life and work as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. Part of the City of London Festival.

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Simon Mundy


It seems appropriate in the week that Gordon Brown takes over as Prime Minister, as the Chancellor who replaced Elgar on the £20 note with a Scottish economist, that I should be giving a lecture on the growing significance of Elgar.  The title is there to tease you a bit I think, but also to suggest that Elgar's star has not quite faded; in fact, I think it is going in the opposite direction, and I hope over the course of the next 45 minutes or so to explain why.

There is a fascinating story I want to unfold with Elgar.  We have got many facets to his character of course.  He is one of our great late Romantic composers, perhaps our only great late Romantic composer.  He is perhaps the first English composer to have European significance after the 18th Century.  In fact, it is quite arguable that he is the only English composer between Purcell and Vaughan Williams that actually does have European significance.  I think it is right that in this 150thanniversary month we should be celebrating him not as an English composer but as an extremely fine European one, and again I will talk a little bit about that as we go along.

Elgar's life is rather extraordinary - he bucks the trend in so many different ways.  He starts with what might be regarded as a pretty usual musical family, has a local provincial career as a violin teacher, as the son of a piano tuner, as somebody who grew up in a music shop in Worcester, and as somebody who had thoroughly local pretensions at the start.  His career falls into four very distinct phases: one of which is that local significance and local excellence; the second which is being the solid festival composer, in many ways the average composer career that many composers now would recognise - lots of nice commissions, lots of stuff around the country, lots of activity, lots of national significance, but nothing very much beyond that; and then suddenly an explosion both of significance and of recognition as well as Continental excitement.  Over 22 years, between 1897 and 1919, you have this extraordinary phenomenon where he becomes something that this country had not really recognised before.  Then you have the final phase, where he seems to be outmoded, a touch forgotten, but never quite as much forgotten as he pretends.  I wanted to talk a little bit about these different periods, because I think they are completely fascinating when we look at both the professional career of a composer at the time and indeed of what was happening in terms of Britain's reputation as a musical nation as well.

You have got that period from 1878 until about 1905 when he has a fundamentally national career, and as I said, that goes into two halves.  From 1878 to 1890, he has effectively a light composer - endless polkas.  Interestingly enough a lot of the manuscripts these polkas are nw owned by the NHS because they were written for a lunatic asylum, and the archives of Powick Lunatic Asylum are now the property of Worcester Primary Care Trust.  This is one of the very early instances of having a really good composer in residence, something that the Arts Council would now rather approve of, but 100-and-something years ago was actually quite an innovation.  It did, however, mean that there were an awful lot of Elgar polkas to be written and some of those salon pieces are terribly good. They do indeed show that Elgar was every bit as good a light composer as he was a serious composer.  This had its personal consequences, interestingly enough, and in fact they had their impact much later in his life and on his music in one very particular way.  This was that he was very much in love with the girl across the road from his father's music shop, Helen Weaver, who lived in the shoe shop opposite in Worcester High Street, and he was engaged to her.  She did one thing that he had always wanted to do, which was to study music in Leipzig.  She spent about almost a year in Leipzig but he managed to visit for only a fortnight.  He was incredibly jealous of that, but he adored her, and he never quite got over the fact that she jilted him and married somebody else and went off to New Zealand.  In theory this was for her health because she had tuberculosis, but she actually lived to a ripe old age.  He was devastated by that, and in many ways, his romantic life never recovered. 

It is interesting, my friend David Owen Norris, who was doing a talk with me at the Hay Festival earlier this month, pointed out that when he came round from a tonsillitis operation in 1918, he'd just heard about the death of Helen Weaver's son in the First World War, and the tune that came out as he was recovering from the anaesthetic at that time was labelled in memory of the son and became the very sombre theme of the Cello Concerto.  So in many ways, he never quite got over that jilting, and there is a lot of suggestion that that light music that he wrote, all those polkas, did not convince Helen that he had any really significant prospects as a possible future husband, so she was better off marrying somebody who was going to become a decent farmer in New Zealand.   The interesting thing is that the piece that he then wrote to dedicate her which was the first piece that really took off in London at the Crystal Palace concerts, she never heard.  She had jilted him by then and gone off.  It was rather a shame really - that the person who was at the basis of so much of his music and of so much of his feeling, his great personal romanticism, never actually seems to have heard much of the music and certainly never saw him conduct it.

But what that did was interesting.  He had a lot of jobs in those years teaching music, something that perhaps he did not take too well to.  He said that teaching the violin was rather like turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder.  I suspect that there are many music teachers who feel precisely the same way.  He taught at a school run by the Gage family in Malvern.  There were seven Gage sisters, most of whom he taught as well as all the other pupils at the school, who were prepared to put up with his rather grumpy ways as a violin teacher.  Interestingly enough, there's a nice connection to this evening, because the Director of the City of London Festival, Ian Richie, who is sitting here, is a direct descendant of the Gage sisters.  Indeed, the Gage family, I believe, are quite well represented at the talk this evening.

What then happened is that he got taken up in quite a big way by August Mans at Crystal Palace and by the various festival directors.  He also had a choice to make: he really came very close to deciding to being a professional violin virtuoso.  He went to a man called Politzer, who was the most famous director and teacher of the violin in Britain at the time and had settled here with great recommendations.  Politzer was extremely keen that Elgar actually take on a role as a professional virtuoso violinist, but he turned it down. 

He went back to Worcester having decided not to pursue his career in London as a professional violinist and go on with the lessons, and he took up his place in what is now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  Back then it was a fairly ad hoc collection of musicians in Birmingham, but it did perform, and I think this is what made the huge difference to his future career, under Dvorak.  He was in the first violins when Dvorak came to conduct his symphonies.  That experience had enormous effect, both on the way he thought of orchestration - he said later that the wonderful thing about Dvorak was that it did not matter how few instruments he had playing, because it never sounded thin - and he found that the whole business of Dvorak's conducting, as a great Continental composer, inspired him hugely.  That is one of the reasons why he then turned to much more serious works and started thinking seriously about whether he could be an orchestral composer of real significance. 

So then you have the period of endless oratorios, which is what festivals wanted in those days.  Festivals in those days were largely choral, very rarely orchestral in the way that they are now, and they were about the commissions that the choruses needed for their annual events.  Some of them were competitive, but most of them were really a huge exhibition of large scale noise. 

Interestingly what Elgar did was to produce quite a lot of oratorios, which were either historical, like Caractacus and the Black Knight, which were equivalents, I suppose, of Pugin's buildings - rather large, gothic, and slightly over the top - and he also started exploring his Catholic background in setting of course, later on in works like Gerontius, but earlier, on the Light of Life.  This business of faith was a complicated business for Elgar.  His father was a Catholic convert, at a time when that was just about acceptable in Victorian England but still not terribly respectable.  He himself does not seem to have been terribly bothered by dogma.  There is a lovely quote a bit later on in this lecture which I will tell you about, but he was a man who fell into that pattern with a certain amount of gusto. 

He once said, I think quite revealingly, that 'There's no point in setting really great poetry to music - you just ruin the poetry'.  So he was a great advocate of setting second rate verse or poetry on the grounds that he could make it better, but boy did he set some rubbish!  I think he learnt from Purcell in that way a little here. Some of the stuff Purcell set would be absolutely grim if you did not actually have the music.  There is a great deal of Elgar's music which sets words which sing well but read awfully.  Of course that is not something that opera composers would find very strange, and it is interesting that Elgar never ended up writing an opera.  It is a great shame that Glyndebourne was not going by the time that he died, because I suspect that the opera that he wanted to write, the Spanish Lady, would have been absolutely perfect for Glyndebourne.

So there he was, this solid festival man, despite his Catholicism, for effectively ten years.  In a way, the great Gerontius trilogy of Gerontius, the Apostles, and the Kingdom are an afterthought to that period of his life.  While they are the triumph of that process of oratorio, they are also the dying embers of oratorio.  You do not get much English oratorio written after that period of 1905 when he finishes that trilogy.  He's the last gasp.  It is a great gasp, but it is still nonetheless the last gasp. 

Bernard Shaw once unkindly said of Parry that he would never be satisfied until he had set the entire Bible.  Thanks largely to Mendelssohn's Elijah being first performed in Birmingham, there was a certain feeling at the time that if you went to festivals, you were going to get large slabs of the Bible sung to you at great length by virtually every possible minor composer in the English canon.

What then happens though is this extraordinary new direction.  This begins with the Enigma Variations where things start to take off.  In many ways Enigma Variations is not a very original work, in the sense that lots of people were writing variations at the time.  Parry actually wrote his Symphonic Variations quite close to then, which is a wonderful work if you ever hear it, and of course many other composers were exploring the variation form at that time.  But Elgar's variations are interesting for three reasons: first of all, that it is so personal, that he writes it about his friends; second, that it is his first piece of music where you can forget the programme in the sense of it following, you know, events all the way through - there are character references, there is a sense of continuing humour and illustration, but there is not the sort of the plodding plot that you got with earlier stuff, and of course there is no reference to that great oratorio tradition; and thirdly it is a much lighter work, in one way, and yet a much more significant work in another. 

One of the most extraordinary things that happened there was that he actually turned down the English musical establishment.  He had a manager called Nathaniel Vert, who decided to send it not to any of the rising stars of English music like Henry Wood, but to Hans Richter in Vienna.  By sending it off to Richter, he really bounced Elgar into an international reputation, because Richter was the man who had given the first performances of Brahms's symphonies and Wagner operas; he was the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic.  It was a completely out of the blue thing for an English composer's work to be sent to such a person.  Richter replied saying he had nothing against putting on something by an English composer, but until he saw it, he was a little bit dubious about it.  But conduct it he did, and he learnt it very quickly, and it made a huge impact, admittedly in Manchester, where he conducted, and then in London.  As far as I know, he did not actually conduct it in Vienna, but at the same time, he did give it a respectability in musical circles that it had never had before.

That bounces Elgar into a different league, and he follows it up with two pieces which might be thought of as quite small but again have a completely modern feel to what he was doing.  One is In the South, a concert overture which now would be regarded as a mini-symphony, but actually takes its inspiration from Italy.  He again was taking a constant Continental inspiration at a moment when everybody expected him to be an English composer.  The second is the Introduction and Allegro for strings, written in 1904 and '05, which is an amazing piece.  It was the first piece written for the London Symphony Orchestra - it was the first commission they ever had - and it was there to exhibit the fact that their string section was infinitely better than any of the conductor-based orchestras in London.  The interesting thing is that Elgar went on to be the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Hans Richter when he retired.  His being their principal conductor is perhaps something that the LSO can be really proud of, even though, it has to be said, for the first few concerts of his season as principal conductor, the hall was only a quarter full, which is rather sad. 

Nonetheless, that Introduction and Allegro for strings is an extraordinary piece, and it comes at the moment when he has just been given a knighthood.  Being given a knighthood as a composer then was rather like it is now; it was a mark of seniority rather than necessarily great acceptance in the international sphere.  On the other hand, he was fighting against both the musical establishment of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, which tended to rather monitor these things, and he also was fighting against his background as a tradesman's son.  The idea that he could be bolted into the limelight as a knight was something that was, even then, just a little groundbreaking.  Interestingly enough, his wife's relatives still cut his wife off without a penny in their wills, on the grounds that she was marrying a tradesman, even though that he had his knighthood.  This was an extraordinary bit of class snobbery of the time.

But what then happens in 1905 and 1906 is really interesting: America takes him up, and it takes him up in quite a big way.  Admittedly at the start this is because of the oratorios - the big American choirs liked these big chunky works.  But then he is taken up by the emerging symphony orchestras like Walter Damrosch in New York and Theodore Thomas in Chicago.  He gets his first degree within the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.  But this did not actually turn out quite as it was intended, because Andrew Carnegie, who we now think of as a great benefactor of so many things through the Carnegie Foundation, was a bit of a mean old so-and-so when it came down to it.  He promised Elgar £600 worth of expenses, and actually paid him £16 worth of expenses, which made the entire trip rather less than satisfactory, because he had cut his fee for the New York Philharmonic accordingly because he thought he was going to get some decent expenses.  So he ended up paying his own way, which may have been one of the reasons why he did not like it so much in America from the beginning.

I have got a little personal connection with that, because he stayed at a building called the Manhattan Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Broadway, which was actually owned by my grandfather, who demolished it, I am sad to say, and replaced it with a particularly hideous building, which then got demolished in its turn and my grandmother sold at the height of the slump after the War.   Anyway, this connection went quite a long way because my grandparents were actually introduced by the brother-in-law of Alice Stuart-Worthley, who was the dedicatee of the violin concerto it seems, the Windflower.  A little later on, Elgar came into contact, we think, with him, because he was a great friend of Oliver Lodge, who was the head of Birmingham University, of which Elgar was the first Professor of Music.  So you get a little personal aside in there!

Back to Italy, and this is where I think that things really get interesting for Elgar and his reputation.  You think of Elgar drawing his inspiration from the Malvern Hills and possibly from Germany in the 1890s with his songs From the Bavarian Highlands and his friendship with Richard Strauss.  But actually, all the great works, the turning points of all his works, all happen after or during visits to Italy - to Venice, to Rome, to Florence. 

In January and February 1907, he spent two months in Italy, and much to his surprise he was feted in quite a big way.  Giovanni Sgambati, who was a pupil of Liszt and was very much the big thing in Italian musical life at that time, threw a big reception for him in Rome.  The Director of Music at the Sistine Chapel, Lorenzo Perosi, who was a big fan of Gerontius, spent a long time showing him round and working with him through some of the Vatican Library, which was an extraordinary privilege for him and he thoroughly enjoyed it.  Although he did not enjoy the rest of the visit too much - he had a filthy cold for a good part of it.

But the following year, he went back again, only this time he went back to Rome for five months - a long time - and it was there that the ideas for his first symphony start coming through, in 1907.  He did something that painters quite often do, which is that he grumbled a lot that the music was not coming, that nothing was happening and that he was not getting very far with his symphony.  He wrote an awful lot of actually not terribly wonderful part songs at this time - the equivalent actually for a composer of sketches, of working up ideas, of thinking where the music was going; almost thinking aloud about what is going to happen.  It was when he came back to Hereford that the symphony started taking shape, but that was about gestation.  That gestation period in Italy was extraordinarily important to him.

At the same time, in 1907, he went across to America again.  What is now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but was then the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, performed the Enigma Variations and In the South and really established his reputation there as an orchestral composer.

1908 really becomes the crucial year.  It is crucial I think in two ways.  First of all, he has convinced himself by then that he really needs to write absolute music and not programme music.  There was an awful lot in the press at the time taking him to task, both for and against the idea of programme music.  But it was also crucial to his success, and I suspect there was a bit of loss of faith going on at the same time.  His visit to Rome did two things: he loved the Vatican Library, but he also could not stand the sort of monetary gloss of Roman Catholicism at the time.  He put it quite well when he wrote back to his old friend Hubert Leicester, who he had composed wind quintets for about forty years earlier: 'The present Pope is a grand, wholly simple man, but he knows nothing.  He should be replaced by a permanent commission with a secretary who could be dismissed.'  So Elgar's faith at that time, after having penned the Apostles, meant that he was not perhaps going to do any more religious music, and interestingly enough, he did not write any further religious music after that except for a couple of anthems.

It was also about that sense of gestating music, so that it comes out in a way which begins to make some sort of sense in the larger scale of his life.  He was fifty in 1907, exactly 100 years ago, and that 50th year of 1907/1908 is a real turning point, as of course it is with many people.  He wrote to Ernest Newman, the great critic that 'All music must be, even if he doesn't know it himself, a reflex, a picture, or an elucidation of the composer's own life, or at the least, the music is necessarily coloured by that life.'  He wrote that while he was writing his first symphony, which he finished in September 1908. 

He took it again to Richter, and Richter was absolutely overwhelmed by it.  Interestingly, the first rehearsal was attended by Gabriel Faure, perhaps one of the composers you'd be least likely to expect to be at a rehearsal of an Elgar symphony.  In that first rehearsal Richter said, 'Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest composer, and not only in this country.'  That, from Richter, is quite something.  After all, he was basically in Vienna with Mahler at the same time.  I think a certain amount of that is from Richter seeing himself as the keeper of the Brahmsian tradition and Elgar firmly fits into that tradition.  But nonetheless, it is quite something to say to the orchestra and especially in front of Faure - it put him and French music slightly in its place.

That symphony had something extraordinary happen to it.  It was absolutely unprecedented.  In the year after it was first performed, in December 1908, it was performed over eighty times around the world.  That has not, I do not think, happened to British work before or since, certainly not in the sense of being conducted by so many different conductors at such short notice.

The first review in the Guardian is, I think, very indicative.  Samuel Langford wrote: 'He has refurbished the symphony and re-fertilised it from its form by infusing into it the best ideas that could be gathered from the practice of the writers of symphonic poems.'  This proves that they give the symphonic form a new kind of unity, both poetic and technical, and that was an interesting comment, because it shows that, Elgar was not seen as a conservative figure at that time.  He was seen very much as a progressive figure taking not just English music, but music generally forward in a new and refreshing way.  People were extraordinarily keen on that symphony.  They followed it absolutely everywhere.

You have it repeated, interestingly enough, three times in a month in London - once conducted by Elgar and twice by Richter.  It was done in the Carnegie Hall by Damrosch within three weeks of its premier in London.  It's conducted by one of Bruckner's pupils in Vienna, and Alexander Siloti conducted it in St Petersburg for the first time within a few months of its performance.  It was conducted in lots of other places, everywhere from Sydney to Toronto but the greatest thing for Elgar was when Arthur Nikisch, the person who he had gone to watch conducting as a young man in 1884, conducted it with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig.  The Gewandhaus Orchestra, which had been Mendelssohn's orchestra, was recognised at the time as the best orchestra in the world, by quite a long way, and Nikisch was the doyen of foreign conductors.  He was the person who Elgar venerated, and also the person, interestingly, who Adrian Boult venerated and, around about that time, had also gone to study with.  Nikisch said about it: 'I consider Elgar's symphony a masterpiece of the first order, one that will be ranked on the same basis with the greatest symphonic models of Beethoven and Brahms.' 

So there you have, in 1908, an extraordinary thing for a British composer: the greatest conductors in the world - Richter, Damrosch, Theodore Thomas, Alexander Siloti, and Arthur Nikisch - all saying that this is a truly new and significant voice, that it is incredibly important for the future of music.  All this at a time when symphonic music was really fighting against some of the tides that were coming against it.  So the contemporary aristocracy of musicians rated Elgar very highly indeed.

It was even, believe it or not, performed as an anniversary concert to mark the 60th anniversary of Harrods, you will be pleased to know.

Elgar also complained, however, that actually parity for English composers, even in London, was not as good as it should be.  Both Debussy and Sibelius were paid more for conducting their works in the London season than he was.  He was particularly fed up with his publishers Novello's, for failing to pay him a composer's fee when he conducted it for the first time in London on the grounds that he was getting a conductor's fee, which is a bit rich frankly.

And back to Italy he went for the next work - he went to Tuscany.  Again, he wrote a lot of part songs, and again, what comes out does not seem to be very much.  In the year of that first symphony, 1909, you have just the Elegy, because a lot of his friends had died that year, and you have a lot of part songs.  And then the Violin Concerto starts emerging, and it is again an even more personal work than the First Symphony.  Bu again, what is so interesting is that the person who takes it up is not an English violinist but Fritz Kreisler.  It was Kreisler who wants to have that first performance and really fought for it too, and he played it all over Europe at the time.  It was also fought over between the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Society as to who would get the premier, the Royal Philharmonic Society being the organisation that had actually commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  So with Elgar conducting, they got it because they paid more - they paid 50 guineas, so they got it.

Almost simultaneously, he starts work on the Second Symphony.  He completed that in 1911 but it does not actually have anything like the success.  It starts marking the public disavowal, if you like, of the new Elgar; the Elgar who takes his view from modern music, starts composing in rather short breaths, doesn't have these long, long melodies that seem to go on forever, starts taking little segments of composition, rather like Debussy was beginning to do at the same time, and proves himself, interested in the same direction that Stravinsky was going in, but in an extremely different way.  He always saw himself as a progressive composer, never as somebody looking back in that way.

What happens is that his great works cluster.  You have got those clusters of the symphonies and the Violin Concerto, the Introduction and Allegro for strings; and then later on, ten years later, you have got the cluster of chamber works and the Cello Concerto, a totally different reaction to the falling apart of the world that he knew so well, the end of the First World War.  All his greatest work is written in that period.

What did the First World War do to Elgar?  It is a fascinating question, because I think it destroyed all that huge significance which had built up just before the War.  It destroyed his confidence, for one thing.  He felt that nobody wanted his music anymore.  It destroyed his foreign reputation because, in that heartland of European music, in Germany and Austria, British music was banned for the duration of the War.  So there was no chance of him building on that European reputation that he could have had.  That meant later on, when we come nearer our own time, to the second half of the 20th Century, that he was a composer who was completely unknown to that generation of German and Austria émigré musicians who fled in the 1930s and who became the musical establishment of the 1940s and '50s.  Elgar was not somebody they had ever come across in their early years in Germany and Vienna, and because that generation was so dominant in the United States and indeed in the recording industry after the Second World War, I suggest that it was because of that First World War banning that Elgar's reputation suffered so much.

He also suffered because he was principally a late Romantic composer at a time when post-Romanticism and Expressionism was all the rage.  He also lost a generation of Elgar followers in the First World War - composers like George Butterworth, who did not survive the War, and would have been champions of an Elgarian tradition. 

He also was rescued by the BBC and HMV in the late 1920s.  He was an extraordinary man, Elgar, because he was the first composer ever to take the gramophone seriously.  He signed his first recording contract in 1914, and he was the first composer ever to record almost all his works twice for the gramophone, once for the acoustic mike and once for the electric mike.  He had as one of the conditions of his contract that he had to have the latest model gramophone delivered to him within a week of it appearing from the factory.  He took his recording extremely seriously, and one of the wonderful things that he did was that in 1929 he booked a recording studio and just went in, not known as a pianist at all, as a pianistic composer, and for an hour, just improvised for the recording and the improvisations are extraordinary.  They are the only record we have of a late-Romantic composer improvising straight into the microphone, a fascinating thing to do, and they are well worth listening to if you can get hold of a copy.

The other thing that happened was that Elgar fell out of popularity with the rising generation of young English conductors.  Beecham did not like him terribly - he was not that fascinated by his stuff.  Henry Wood was a bit miffed, and remained miffed, that he had preferred Richter to him for his great works, and so the early years of the Proms were never entirely Elgar occasions, despite Land of Hope and Glory.  Although, to be fair, Henry Wood did conduct, and conducted very well, quite a lot of Elgar, but he was not an Elgar champion in the way that you might have expected, certainly not in the way that Adrian Boult was, but Adrian Boult was very young at that time.  The interesting thing is that you always think of Elgar and Boult almost simultaneously in the later years of Boult's life.  Actually, they barely spoke for ten years.  They had a terrible fight over Boult cutting down the orchestration for the Second Symphony to take it on tour, and Elgar virtually cut him dead for about ten years, which is a real shame.  It only really patched up in the late-1920s when Boult founded the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

His real champion was Sir Landon Ronald, who was also the main advisor to the gramophone company HMV.  Ronald was a huge champion of his work, but unfortunately, he did not conduct one of the best orchestras.  He conducted the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, which was not as good as the LSO or as the Queen's Hall Orchestra, and so he was not quite in the same league as some of the other conductors of the time.

But there was a complete lack of interest after the First World War in the great conductors who dominated the 20th Century - Bruno Walter, Koussevitzky, Toscanini, Furtwangler.  The only person who really championed his music, of those great Continental musicians, was Mengelberg of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  Mengelberg did treat Elgar's music very seriously, but after the First World War, Mengelberg really devoted most of his time to Amsterdam and did not really travel in the way that he might have done.

So that is what happened to his reputation.  Now, where are we?  This is where we talk about the growing significance.  Well, where is it going to grow from?  It is interesting.  The champions among contemporary conductors are Bernard Haitink, Daniel Barenboim, Colin Davis, Mark Elder.  Mark Elder has got Ritcher's old job with the Hallé and he is actually doing a superb job up there, but Mark does not have that huge Continental reputation that Simon Rattle does, and Simon is not quite so keen on Elgar.  Neither is Maazel in New York, or Gergiev, or Kurt Masur, or Mariss Jansons - they are not Elgarian by nature.  Interesting that you have Clive Gillinson, former Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, now running Carnegie Hall in New York, and even though Carnegie Hall was the first place that hosted the First Symphony, there are no plans, as far as I know, to put it on during its centenary season, which is rather a shame.

The violinists are not really taking up the Violin Concerto.  I do not know quite why - maybe it is too long for them - it is certainly very long for a violin concerto, and it's quite hard, but perhaps they do not feel that it is quite worth the payback.  There is a wonderful young German musician, Julia Fischer, who is due to record it, and I suspect that if she does as good a job as she has done on many other concertos, that is going to be something worth having.  But a lot of great violinists are not which is a great shame.

The people who are taking Elgar up in a big way, are the cellists.  It is quite lucky that cellists now seem to be more popular even than violinists and pianists in the terms of their reputation, because the Elgar Cello Concerto is now, oddly enough, his last great work, the first one that most people know.  I suspect it is the chamber musicians playing the Piano Quintet and the Quartet  that are going to champion Elgar in the future and it is going to be the cellists.

But, there is an advocacy job to be done.  His reputation in a way now seems to have been surpassed by Britten, and we have to ask will this last?  I do not think it will.  I actually think that Elgar is going to be seen in the same way that Sibelius and Rachmaninov are seen, and that perhaps his contemporaries would not have seen him, as actually being, in the end, as good a composer as Richard Strauss and actually one that dates rather well. 

So, in his 150th birthday, let's wish the old boy a happy birthday, because I think he very much deserves it.



©Simon Mundy, Gresham College, 29 June 2007

This event was on Fri, 29 Jun 2007

Simon Mundy

Simon Mundy

Simon Mundy is a writer, broadcaster and cultural policy advisor. He is Vice-President of the Writers for Peace Committee of PEN International and has advised on...

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