Edward Elgar, June 2 1857 –

June 2 2007

In 1900 humanity still felt itself to be surrounded by Nature. By 1920 it knew that it surrounded it. Elgar, for me, is a figure of the ambiguous transitional moment.

This is a rationalisation of an intuition I once had while hearing some of his music, a long time ago, of a force existing, or waves seeming to move, between him and a landscape, in which he was standing: it was impossible to say whether they were coming from him or moving towards him.

His tearing melancholy is charged with ebullience. They cannot be separated. The melancholy comes from the loss of an embrace: the recognition of the ending of an old relationship with the Earth; the exuberance is the (in 1910 still) soaring, optimistic spirit of Man which ended it.

This spirit was broken by the War (and in Fascism perverted; Elgar was only broken). Hence the broken openings of the cello concerto and the piano quintet.

The struggle between two forces, Earth and Man, gives the music its power. It is the torn quality of Elgar which puts him, for a few people, in the company of Mahler. Those who cannot hear it cannot regard him as a great composer. Michael Kennedy wrote of Sinopoli, reviewing his strangely slow performance of the second symphony, that he has “no conception of the energy in the music”.

8 Responses to “Edward Elgar, June 2 1857 –”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    This is this blog’s 250th post.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The 150th anniversary celebrations give the impression that the whole of Elgar’s reputation is based on the cello concerto: the Classic FM view of Elgar.

    The best thing has been BBC Radio 4’s wonderful four broadcasts by the deeply sympathetic Ruth Padel under the characteristically Elgarian door-slamming heading The Enigma I Will Not Explain. Each was crammed into 15 minutes, and was not necessarily the worse for that.

    They are no longer available, after the statutory one week on BBC Radio Player. The BBC policy on keeping programmes online is inconsistent. Ruth Padel should be kept, on the programme’s dedicated page, but has not been. But the much-reduced, after his 2005 illness, Henze’s 80th birthday interview is still there more than one year later, on a dedicated page. Is the decision not to put live music online beginning to affect other material?

    Presumably all this will be reconsidered when the entire BBC sound and video archive – every minute that has ever been preserved – is put online for a charge.

  3. […] music are indirect: from Vaughan Williams and from Britten. And from Elgar, on whom I posted here. George Butterworth, who died at the Somme, seemed to write about the war before it began. Elgar […]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    I sent a version of this to Roger Scruton in late 2003 while trying to get him to Davos. He replied:

    “[…] I read your remarks about Elgar with great interest and agreement. You are surely right about the transitional sense of the relation between man and nature – something you find also in Thomas Hardy, and which is a source of sadness and energy likewise. The second symphony is a sublime masterpiece, especially the scherzo, and has a kind of boyish boisterousness as well as a schoolmaster’s sadness about it.


    Best wishes,

    Roger Scruton.”

    Schoolmaster’s sadness? He was writing about his schoolmasters in an autobiographical book about then.

  5. […] End (1910), and Maurice (1971, but written from 1913 onwards), are in part about humanity’s changing physical relationship with the earth. Howards End is about modern cosmopolitanism and […]

  6. davidderrick Says:

    The music isn’t pastoral. It isn’t about nature, but is a passionate response to nature.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Another way of stating the ambiguity: are the emotions those of arrival or departure?

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