Social Networking with Edward Elgar

May 06, 2010

I’m sitting in a Punjabi restaurant on my favorite block of Indian restaurants at Lexington and 26th. I’ve ordered the Royal Special (vegetarian), and while I wait for my food I open a pocket score of the Enigma Variations.

It’s a warm May evening and all the windows and doors are open. Out on the noisy sidewalk only a few feet away from my table two young women in high heels and short skirts with bare, gym-hardened legs are standing in the quintessential city pose: what the Italian sculptors called “contraposto” (with one hip slightly jutted out and the other relaxed) while one hand dangles a cigarette and the other holds a cell phone to the ear. They are “networking.”

Edward Elgar, that shy, difficult and moody Worcestershire composer, also had his network of friends, although one suspects his was smaller and far more intimate in those days long before iPhones, Facebook and chat groups. As anyone who knows symphonic music is aware, Elgar’s blandly titled “Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36,” is a fondly sketched testament to the personalities, quirks and eccentricities of thirteen of his dearest friends plus a final self-portrait of himself. Well—not exactly. Let’s say twelve plus a dog, as one of the rowdier variations describes an exceptionally aerobic English bulldog careening across a lawn, hurling himself into a river and returning with a stick in his mouth.

The “Enigma Variations,” as everyone now calls them, composed in the last year of the nineteenth century when Elgar was forty two, are so famous and have been the subject of so much speculation about the characters portrayed within, that it’s sometimes hard to stand back and contemplate the piece for what it is musically. They (the variations) constitute historically the first piece of British symphonic music of any quality—ever. And it’s hard to think of anything written since, including by Elgar himself, that equals them.

Why there was a perfect drought of good composers for nearly the entire eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England is one of music’s great, well, enigmas. England seems to have been so absorbed with grooming its empire and urging on the hectic Industrial Revolution that for some reason it could not produce a single composition of world-class status between the death of Purcell in 1695 and the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899. That’s two hundred years, a mind-boggling musical creative black hole.

I can identify with Elgar. He came from a relatively small town, learned music from his father, was a “practical” musician, played several instruments, but was always ambivalent about his place in society. Although he lived in London later in his life, he always pined for the solitude of the rural regions where he grew up, not far from the Welsh border. He struggled hard as a young man, and he and his wife, even after the stunning success of the Enigma Variations made him an overnight sensation, often didn’t have enough money to heat their house in winter.

Eventually though—and this is where the changes in musical tastes between then and now really show—Elgar became a deeply revered figure, one of the major figures in English cultural life. His Symphony No. 1, written eight years later, was performed over a hundred times in the first year after its premiere. Such excitement and adulation from a grateful public for a classical composer is unthinkable in 2010. It is the kind of fame that only a Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash might be accorded in our time and country.

The Enigma Variations is one of those very rare specimens in the arts, an absolutely perfect creation on all levels. On the larger scale it forms a beautifully modulated emotional arch, with slow, pensive and melancholy passages deftly intertwined with short, explosive and brilliantly scored set pieces—like the bulldog variation. The “theme” itself is a simple tune of Mozartean perfection, an A-B-A structure of six plus four plus bars with a final cadential bar on the tonic of G.

The melody has three sets of two-bar statements, with the second bar of each pair being a rhythmic retrograde of the first. Harmonically it is beautifully articulated by a strategically positioned secondary dominant (a first inversion V7 of the subdominant) that occurs exactly at the midpoint of the theme, an auditory “signpost” that keeps the listener oriented throughout the remaining thirty-five minutes of music.

Studying and performing the Variations is a pleasure that never seems to grow stale. Elgar’s powers of invention are such that he makes of the theme and its harmonic implications a kind of treasure hunt that continues to reveal unsuspected nuggets of pleasure and meaning. The detail of his orchestration is on a level with Mahler and Debussy. His string writing in particular is richly imagined, with a special focus on the intensely lyric potential of the celli and violas. The sound is deep and burnished, a musical mahogany that fills the musical space with emotion and the kinds of colors you might experience in a Rembrandt or a Vermeer. The violins play frequently down in the lower tenor range. Some of the most effective moments in the orchestration involve them high up on the G string where the sound is taut and expressively stressed.

The Enigma Variations could not have existed without certain predecessors, and I expect Elgar would be the first to admit that. The final passacaglia variations movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and of course Brahms’ own “Haydn Variations” set the model of a Romantic backward look at the classical variations form. But there is also a lot of late Wagner here—Meistersinger in the convivial final “E.D.U.” variation, and Parsifal in the second variation, the loving portrait of the composer’s wife, “C.A.E.”

Elgar devoted much of the remainder of his life to works that are not often heard outside the UK. The oratorio “Dream of Gerontius,” a huge work with moments of true visionary writing and a wealth of late Romantic musical images, is marred by what nowadays feels like an exceptionally archaic and at times times turgid text by Cardinal Newman, a 19th century Catholic poet and philosopher. But say this to any music loving Brit and you’ll get a look of indignation, or possibly even a bloody nose if you’re in the neighborhood of a pub that’s just closed for the night. They love this piece more than they love their queen. I think Elgar’s Achilles Heel was his unsophisticated literary tastes. He expended a huge amount of time and energy during the prime of his composing career on two other Christian oratorios, “The Kingdom” and “The Apostles,” that are hardly if ever heard today, even in England. He really felt that these big religious choral and orchestral works were the pinnacle of his achievement. How a great composer could make such a momentous miscalculation of his own strengths and weaknesses is a great mystery, but he was not alone in that department.

Elgar was the first composer to understand the historical value of conducting and recording his own orchestral works. In his seventies, at the height of his fame, he several times went into the studio—the famous Abbey Road in one case—to record his major compositions. There is a recording of the Enigma Variations made in the late 1920’s. Any conductor today taking the piece up must listen carefully to this recording, for it reveals a kind of approach to orchestral performance that has all but disappeared in the intervening years. The string playing is full of rich, drooping portamenti, a kind of melodic slipping and sliding that listeners today only associate with corny old movie music from the silent film era. But in the context of Elgar’s music it sounds warm and deeply expressive.

What to do about the radical divergence between Elgar’s notated tempi in the score and what he actually did in performance is the subject for a whole other posting.

Comments (21)

May 7, 2010

I think Boyce, Finzi, and most certainly Vaughan-Williams deserve credit as great composers in your eyes too.

feral hermit
May 7, 2010

Likewise Benjamin Britten.

feral hermit
May 7, 2010

addendum: not so bold as to infer that I know your intentions better than you do, merely to suggest that Britten and others deserve credit for their works.

May 7, 2010

In Britain they play "Nimrod" every year at the Remembrance Sunday commemoration in London. For Brits of a certain age, that music is part of our DNA.

May 7, 2010

There’s no doubt that no British composer has written any concert piece that equals the Enigma Variations, including anything of Britten, Williams, etc. But I wonder if you exaggerate the adulation Elgar received. Anyway, your comment about his momentous miscalculation of his strengths and weaknesses reminds me again of a previous post about Bernstein. Surely he miscalculated badly too and made some bad choices of texts for some of his pieces.

Mixed Meters
May 7, 2010

Is Paul McCartney as famous as Dylan or Johnny Cash? He's written "classical" orchestra works recently - and not gotten a hundred performances in the first year. I suspect the real difference in music between Elgar's time and now is that so much music is so easily available electronically these days.

And, trivially, 1899 was not the last year of the 19th century. Did we learn nothing from Y2K?

May 8, 2010

I'm surprised to hear that you admire Elgar so much. In your book and some other blog posts, you seem to be fairly dismissive of that other Great British Composer, Benjamin Britten. Granted, they wrote VERY different music.

May 10, 2010

Thanks for the insight as my son just performed Enigma with his youth symphony yesterday. I had never heard of Elgar and when the kids were finished an audience member in front of me just said "wow". I happened upon your blog as I was getting ready to hear your "City Noir" tomorrow night in SF, but delighted to deepen my understanding of Elgar. Thanks again.

Richard Friedman
May 10, 2010

I don't think John is saying that there are no great British composers SINCE 1899. Rather, looking at the 18th and 19th C there is this big gaping desert of 3rd-rate composers, until Elgar arrives with the Variations at the very very end of the 19thC.

It is odd. But that's also true of the visual arts as well. Seems the culture could only support the literary arts until, perhaps, after WW I, which is when everything changed and the true 20th C began. And, then, come Vaughan-Williams, Britten, and others.

The 16th and 17thC's were perhaps Britain's finest hours, musically.

Turner had to leave England, and saw the light in Italy. His paintings were never the same after that. Perhaps there was something similar at work in music. Maybe the industrial revolution, pollution, Treacle, all conspired to retard music composition, somehow. Interesting thought....

Thomas S.
May 11, 2010

I think we must realize that he was talking about the FIRST good British composer since Purcell. Britten, Holst, and Vaughn Williams were not writing music until the 20th century. Britain and America are the same on this aspect, both spending significantly more time in regards to industrialization and colonization than in any sort of musical creation. I consider (Ignoring the baroque brits for the moment) Elgar as the first great British composer as much as I consider Ives the first great American composer (Though some would argue in the favor of Gottschalk as being the first, though due to his relatively short career)

Hayes Biggs
May 11, 2010

There is at least one Elgar score that, for me at least, rises to the level of the Enigma Variations: the Cello Concerto--passionate, expansive and yet also concise, a real masterwork, shot through with Elgar's essential melancholy. While not putting them on an equal footing with those two, I would also put in a good word for the "symphonic study" Falstaff, the Cockaigne Overture, the Violin Concerto, a good bit of the Second Symphony, the Introduction and Allegro for strings, and, over the top as it is, The Music Makers.

May 11, 2010

Weird 'did you know' - that bulldog Dan's themes as sketched in his master's visitors book became the 'prayer' theme of Gerontius (Dan in repose) and the opening theme of the splendid In the South Overture (Dan leaping).

The symphonies are perfect expressions of that moody, divided soul, too, if less succinct than EV. Falstaff's my own favourite.

May 13, 2010

Enjoyed your notes on Elgar and will enjoy playing it with you tonight with the NSO. You are a terrific conductor -- easy to follow, clear in your concept, and attentive to the composer's vision. Just right.
I'm also looking forward to next week with more of your wonderful compositions.

Tim Krueger
May 15, 2010

In the 1990's, getting a PhD in Britain, I wrote a dissertation on the choral music of Charles V. Stanford (1852-1924), who doubtless falls into the 300-year black hole mentioned above. Admittedly, Stanford is not the household name Elgar is (I was astonished one of your respondents had never heard of Elgar!); but it is nevertheless interesting to note that, when Mahler was conductor of the New York Phil., he programmed Stanford's Symphony #3, the "Irish", as the greatest example of British symphonic writing ever. And that was AFTER the Enigma Variations were well known. Hubert Parry (1848-1918) also deserves a mention, and I consider his Symphonic Variations in E minor every bit the equal of the Enigma Variations in terms of orchestration, melodic inventiveness, and sheer quality of musical craftsmanship. So, even though there is no contesting that, from the modern perspective, it appears there was no composer of international stature from Britain, I think this is a sort of historical myopia.

D. Jackson
May 18, 2010

In 1897, two years before Elgar completed the Variations, his buddy Alexander MacKenzie's Scottish Concerto was premiered by Paderewski. While perhaps not in the same league as the Variations, it's definitely quality British symphonic music.
With its exuberant spirit and compositional style that looks forward to the 20th century (shades of Gershwin & Poulenc long before their time, as well as some hints of Rachmaninov (who shared a stage with A.M. in 1899)), I'm amazed that it isn't played more.
If you don't know it, check it out (I think the Hyperion CD is the only recording available). If you're a concert pianist or conductor, program it!

peter tyler
June 24, 2010

What a warm and loving tribute from one composer to another. It really did me good to read it. As a Worcestershire boy Elgar is, as one of the correspondents says, part of the DNA. Im not sure I would give someone a bloody nose over 'Gerontius' but I often feel sorry for poor old Newman who, incidentally, will be beatified by Pope Benedict in England this September.

August 19, 2010

Arthur Sullivan suffered from the same disease of not knowing where his true strengths were. He wanted to write the "great English opera", but had to settle for writing the greatest musical comedies in the English language. Not bad.

September 5, 2010

Another vote for the Cello Concerto. As much as I love the Variations and agree wholeheartedly with your appreciation of them, I think the concerto is as perfectly realized, and as emotionally rich and varied. It often suffers from overwrought and undisciplined performances, but that's another issue.

Great blog, thanks.

November 16, 2010

Here in Birmingham (UK) where Elgar was a professor for a while, Sakari Oramo played a lot of Elgar when he was music director of the CBSO, including European premieres more than a century on. His view was Elgar was a European composer (friend/admirer (mutual) of Strauss) and that the English (& Boult) view/performance of Elgar had not served the composer well. There's some wonderful things in the Kingdom and Apostles.

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