Edward Elgar and His World

By Kuykendall, James Brooks | Notes, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Edward Elgar and His World


Kuykendall, James Brooks, Notes


Edward Elgar and His World. Edited by Byron Adams. (Bard Music Festi - val.) Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. [xxi, 426 p. ISBN-10: 0691134456; ISBN-13 978-0-691-13446- 8. $22.95.] Illustrations, music examples, index.

2007 was the sesquicentennial of Elgar's birth, and-as may be expected in anniversary years-there has been a surge of publications and events related to the honoree. That Elgar would be the subject of the celebrated Bard Music Festival is noteworthy, especially given his rather marginal status in American concert life. In recent years the festival title has included the first and last names of its subject-perhaps shying away from the "canonic" look of the household name. This postmodern move not - withstanding, by its nature the festival is "canonizing," and Elgar's admission to this selective list may be his most important achievement since being awarded the Order of Merit in 1911.

It is greatly to the credit of Byron Adams that, amid the plethora of Elgar material published in the last few years, Edward Elgar and His World is a vital contribution. The organization of Elgar and His World as outlined in the introduction is attractive; conceding to the "two Elgars" trope that pervades much of the literature, Adams settles on a version of the trope articulated by Percy Young-private Worcestershire versus public London. As Adams emphasizes, "nearly all of Elgar's public and populist compositions, including all five of the Pomp and Circumstance marches, were composed in the West Midlands, and his anguished and, in spite of the large orchestral and choral forces employed, intimate reaction to the war, The Spirit of England . . . [and] the most nakedly autobiographical and most private of his scores, The Music Makers, . . . was finished in the city" (p. xvi). Thus there may indeed be a correspondence between what Elgar was writing and where he was writing it, but the correspondence is not what we might expect; indeed, this may reveal something about the wistfulness and nostalgia that have often been cited in discussions of his music.

There are four essays under the heading "Worcester" and five under "London," although naturally the writers have not restricted their discussions only to works composed in their assigned locale. The geographical metropolis/periphery organization facilitates distinctions among works often jumbled together-namely the miscellaneous "low art" repertoire that Elgar produced in a variety of genres. Daniel Grimley's offering on Elgar's populism is a Worcester essay, and gives a fairly broad overview; the London essays on salon life (Sophie Fuller), The Crown of India (Nalini Ghuman) and its Music Hall origins (Deborah Heckert), are rich contextual treatments. It is refreshing to see so much space given to the serious treatment of the popular aspect of Elgar's oeuvre-as distinct from "public" and "private" and what Grimley rightly labels "an authentic mode of Elgar's compositional voice" (p. 100).

At the middle of the book Adams has carved out space for annotated primary sources: Aidan Thompson's extensive survey of early British reviews of The Apostles and Alison Shiel's edition of Charles Sanford Terry's previously unpublished "Notes on Elgar's Violin Concerto," together with related correspondence. Additionally, Thompson's brilliant essay on Elgar's critics illuminates much about the obfuscation (as defense mechanism) that the composer employed in later years.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this book is the nuanced discussion of Elgar's Catholicism and its significance for his music (and for subsequent biographical and critical treatments). It is a complex subject, and it is a focus in many of the essays-particularly that of Adams himself, as well as those of Charles Edward McGuire, Rachel Cowgill, and Leon Bot - stein, and the early reviews of The Apostles. With so many contributors exploring the subject, there are inevitably several interpretations, and one particular strength of this volume is that it allows contradictions to stand without the usual oversimplifications, recognizing that even if we were to believe that the enigmatic Elgar always spoke as he felt, his feelings changed a good bit from context to context and time to time.

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