Elgar and Academicism 3: Devices and Contrivances

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Self-taught am I, and the god has planted in my heart all manner of lays, and worthy am I to sing to thee as to a god.

THESE WORDS, TRANSLATED from Homer's Odyssey, are those of the Public Orator at Cambridge University: the occasion, the bestowal of an honorary degree on Elgar.1 With this eulogy, academe aptly enough bestowed the accolade of academic respectability on one who never took the academic route to attain it.

In the first of my three MT articles on Elgar and academicism (Summer 2005) I fitted the term 'academicism' to my present purpose by narrowing its scope: it would refer to an academy of music or other educational institution, and to the pedagogical content of any institutional course in music. I retain this definition as I embark on my last article, but will find it useful - for reasons that will become evident - to view a wider spectrum of opinion too. The meaning of 'academic' has shifted and picked up tributary nuances over time. The term appears in the Elgarian literature, and was a hot subject of debate in the first half of the 20th century, as well as subsequently.

To explore its current implications, I sounded out some 24 fellow musicians, drawn from the ranks of musicologists, performers and conductors. For this exercise, views were invited on the meaning of the term 'academic' as applied to a musical work. A list of part-definitions was offered, which respondents were to weight on a prescribed scale. The following elements of meaning found most favour, in the given order:

(1) Showing a scholarly discipline;

(2) Carrying a whiff of the textbook;

(3) Excessively formal;

(4) Lacking imagination;

(5) Without much surface allure;

(6) Rigidly uncompromising in its working-out;

(7) Displaying procedures or structures more evident to the eye than to the ear;

(8) Incorporating the 'devices' (e.g. augmentation, inversion, canon, invertible counterpoint).

Of these definitions, 1 and 8 may be regarded as neutral or positive: the remainder all have negative resonances, or suggest a lack of balance between rigour and appeal. Among further part-definitions proposed by respondents, 'accomplished rather than inspired' was a typical example: another colleague put it as 'craftsmanlike but lacking a vital spark'. In these instances, we would presumably be right to interpret 'accomplished' and 'craftsmanlike' as positives, offset by the negatives stated. Craftsmanship, then, is appreciated, so long as imagination, spark and allure are also present. There is clearly a negative tendency in the way we use the term today, a tendency more marked among our colleagues in the USA.

Graham Sadler added to his reply an historical perspective:

It would be interesting to know when the current pejorative use of 'academic' with regard to music came about. The great Franco-Netherlanders C.1500, with their displays of astonishing contrapuntal ingenuity, would surely have been puzzled by it. So would a craftsman-composer like Bach. I am aware of a shift in 'popular' perception in early 18th-century France. Rameau, for example, was dubbed 'savant' and 'géomètre' by those who could not accept that a learned theorist could be a true creative artist. (A parallel is the British habit of regarding intellectuals as being too clever by half.) In Rameau's case, of course, it was not so much self-conscious displays of contrapuntal skill as his 'recherché' harmony that came in for criticism. Even so, I believe that such criticism was part and parcel of the current shift in the way that composers were perceived - no longer as mere craftsmen but as inspired 'artists'.

In Elgar's time, academicism - with a somewhat pejorative meaning-was clearly associated with academies. 'The tendency of academies to breed academicism is well known,' wrote Parry.2 Academicism was, for him, 'systématisation [...] stiffened into formality': it reflected a point of view that allowed theory (that is, abstractions unrelated to what composers actually do) to precede practice. …