Aspects of Elgar

By Davis, Andrew | Musical Opinion, March/April 2010 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Elgar


Davis, Andrew, Musical Opinion


The distinguished conductor, whose new world premiere recording of the complete music for Elgar's Imperial Masque The Crown of India was released recently by Chandos, here writes on his approach to the composer's music.

My love of Elgar's music has essentially been a life-long one, and I remember very distinctly the first overwhelming impression it made upon me as a 14-year-old. It was at the 1958 Proms, at the Albert Hall, of course, when I was taken by a maiden aunt to a performance of The Dream ofCerontius conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. It made an unforgettable impact on me, and although I cannot now recall the other soloists, Richard Lewis as Gerontius was the one soloist I remember on that occasion above all.

Barbirolli was one of my great heroes at that time, and his performance of Gerontius led me also to investigate the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto intimately. At that time, Elgar's music was not as frequently performed as it is now, and I did not get to know the Symphonies until rather later - and works such as The Apostles and The Kingdom were never performed, or, if they were, very rarely indeed.

Later, I went to King's College Cambridge as an Organ Scholar. When I went up I was a huge fan of Michael Tippett - even, I would say, a fanatic for his music. But in Cambridge I met a friend who, learning of my love for British music, and of my knowledge of several of Elgar's works, introduced me in much greater detail to the Symphonies. Although I had heard them in my teens, it was at Cambridge through my friend that I got to know the Symphonies intimately in my very early twenties, and so, by the time I graduated in 1967, 1 knew the major works of Elgar in great detail, including Falstaff, to which the study of the Symphonies had led me.

At times, I feel that Falstaff is the greatest of Elgar's purely orchestral works - quite recently, last August in Melbourne, I ended the programme with it, and it made a very deep impression. Perhaps it is best to end a programme with Falstaff - when it is done, it tends to be placed at the end of the first half, but there is something about the very end ofthat work that suggests that almost nothing can follow it. Certainly, in Melbourne, that came home to me very forcibly.

If one thinks about the essential Englishness of Elgar - characteristics that make him such an important figure above everybody else - at times it is not easy to pin them down. First of all, of course, he was the first great English composer since Purcell, and he absorbed much from his Continental contemporaries - Brahms, Wagner and later Richard Strauss. Also, Elgar was totally individual: there is great flamboyance at times, as in the Pomp and Circumstance Marches and at other moments he withdraws, almost suddenly in the course of a work, to a much more intimate expression. For example, in the first movement of the Second Symphony, during the development section he is back in the Malvern Hills with that rather English quality of wistful melancholy - away from urban life, such as we find in English literature going back to the Middle Ages.

For example, I have an unpublished letter Elgar wrote to Jaeger at Novellos, in which he discusses the proposal to make a separate orchestral piece out of the Prelude dna Angel's Farewell from Gerontius (rather like the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde), and in the letter Elgar says to Jaeger: ? am going to send you a copy of Piers Plowman...' It's that same essentially English quality that Elgar alludes to when he added a quotation from Piers Plowman: 'Meteless and moneless on Malverne huiles' at the end of the manuscript of Cockaigne.

You find that 'English melancholy" in the music of Vaughan Williams, albeit in a different way, and in Delius, too.

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