Magazine article The Spectator

Elgar: Child of Dreams

Magazine article The Spectator

Elgar: Child of Dreams

Article excerpt

Music in a landscape ELGAR: CHILD OF DREAMS by Jerrold Northrop Moore Faber, £14.99, pp. 224, ISBN 0571223370 £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Twenty years ago Jerrold Northrop Moore published a capacious life of Sir Edward Elgar. Given that, and given the already extensive library of books on a man who is in many ways England's most fascinating major composer, one might wonder why Mr Moore has returned to his subject in this small volume. He himself explains why in his foreword. On first hearing Elgar's Cello Concerto 50 years ago, Mr Moore was 'transfixed . . . with its power to project a landscape I did not know'. He seeks to link Elgar specifically to his landscape - or, more accurately, to the geographical context in which he wrote much of his music and to 'reveal' him as a pastoral visionary on the scale of John Milton. He knows his subject thoroughly, so he deserves to be taken seriously in making such a claim.

Whether he succeeds or not will be debated by readers of this fine book long after they have put it aside. The author refers often to 'the tune from Broadheath', named after Elgar's birthplace, and representing a melody he conceived on a visit there as a young man which recurs in many of his works. Many composers have had their own signature phrases, but the author feels this one is special because of its being provoked by a particular place. He quotes often from letters from the composer to his friends, in which Elgar tells of walks or bicycle rides (and, later on, journeys through the countryside in a chauffeur-driven motor car) that have served to re-open the creative wellsprings after a dry patch. Certainly, Elgar was restless - he moved his family around frequently once he could afford to do so, and went south during the winter. He found it comparatively easy to write in Worcestershire or Herefordshire, much less so in London. Indeed, Mr Moore singles out what he holds to be one of Elgar's rare failures - The Music Makers - and blames its shortcomings on its having been written in the metropolis.

The dangers of such a thesis, even when presented by one so erudite on these matters, is that the life and times of the composer are adapted or interpreted to shore it up. Elgar was certainly influenced by landscape, as he himself frequently admitted; but he was as much a man driven and inspired by his own sense of destiny, his own determination to prove himself against his detractors (not least his wife's snobbish family), and his recognition of his enormous gifts as a musician. …

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