David Matthews composer

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A wistful sophisticate

Review of The Cambridge Companion to Elgar, Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton eds.; Elgar: Child of Dreams, Jerrold Northrop Moore; Recording of Elgar: Piano Concerto realized by Robert Walker

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, March 2005

At the public premiere, in February 1998, of Anthony Payne's masterly reconstruction of Elgar's Third Symphony, the audience in a packed Royal Festival Hall gave the work and its composer by proxy a standing ovation. As I enthusiastically joined in the applause, I couldn't also help reflecting, somewhat ruefully, that no piece written today would ever be likely to receive such acclaim at its first performance. What the audience was hearing was new to them, yet their response was more than a straightforward reaction to a work in a familiar language; it demonstrated a longing for music that expresses heartfelt warmth and openness of feeling, quantities that, sadly, are rare in most of the music of our own time. Edward Elgar is the best-loved of British composers, and this is surely because, like his contemporary Gustav Mahler, he speaks to us directly of things that matter. There is something about his melodies in particular that irresistibly moves us: their pent-up passion seems to express the very essence of the English character, apparently restrained but seething with emotion just below the surface.

The touchingly unselfconscious statements that Elgar made about the way he composed, several of which are quoted in Christopher Kent's essay on his compositional methods in The Cambridge Companion to Elgar, give a clue to this directness of utterance. Elgar's belief that music is all around us, that he only had to listen attentively to be able to write it down, might sound naïve - the Hollywood idea of the composer - but with him at least it was true (though the Hollywood version might play down the hard work that went into acquiring a technique adequate to develop the ideas he was hearing). He probably will not have known that he was instinctively following Ruskin's advice to the artist to go directly to nature. For him, nature was most suggestive when it was his own: away from his native Worcestershire, the ideas would not come to readily. In Elgar: Child of dreams, Jerrold Northrop Moore lays great emphasis on the child Elgar as father of the man. He traces almost everything in the music back to the first tune Elgar wrote down at the age of ten, when he returned to Broadheath, his birthplace, to spend a holiday at a nearby farm. Elgar later used this tune in his Wand of Youth suite. Moore related its characteristic rocking rhythm and ascending and descending shape to the contour of the Malvern Hills which dominated the landscape of his childhood. Elgar would probably have agreed with Moore's thesis that the most revealing - and most quoted - statement he made about his music is from a 1921 letter:

I am still at the heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds & longing for something very great… I am still looking for This.

The fifteen contributors to The Cambridge Companion provide a rich fund of new thoughts on the man and his music. Robin Holloway speaks up fervently for the neglected early choral works, making a strong case for The Black Knight as a worthy sibling to Mahler's Das klagende Lied; Byron Adams intriguingly draws the Elgar of The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles into the perfumed world of Wildean decadence. The whole range of Elgar's minor works, most of them hardly ever performed today, is comprehensively covered, rather at the expense of the major orchestral pieces - but these have been adequately discussed elsewhere in the Elgar literature. Many of the writers provide arresting insights into Elgar's character, which build up a fresh and detailed portrait of his complex personality, with all its contradictions. The familiar image of his tweed-jacketed squire with his dogs, his love of country walks and his reactionary politics, contracts with his sophisticate who happily embraced many aspects of modern life: he had a telephone installed as early as 1904; he liked cars and planed (in 1933, at the age of seventy-five, he flew to Paris to hear his Violin Concerto played by the young Yehudi Menuhin and to visit Delius); he was one of the first composers to exploit the new mediums of the gramophone and the radio; he even flirted with advertising, endorsing Du Maurier cigarettes and receiving free monthly supplies. These may have helped to kill him: he died of throat cancer.

In Elgar's music too, there are inconsistences. Byron Adams wonders why he was so dismissive of his own oratorios during his 1933 visit to Delius. Could it simply have been gentlemanly tact in the face of Delius's known disdain for religious music? We do not know if the loss of his faith in later life was enough to make Elgar repudiate the works in which he had once asserted his belief, or rather his struggle to believe - for Gerontius hardly expresses a calm, Bach-like confidence, any more than do Mahler's Second or Eighth symphonies. Both Mahler and Elgar strove to encompass a religious view of life, and their aspirations - of "something very great" - are the more moving for the uncertainties that accompany them. This is not the only area in which Mahler and Elgar draw close: both of them also had to suffer accusations of lack of taste because of their popularism, their uninhibited use of a vernacular language. But Elgar's public voice, his Edwardianism, is most unlike Mahler, who was quite incapable of writing occasional music. During his lifetime, Elgar was compared with Kipling, another daring employer of the vernacular, yet Kipling was much more a creature of his time, and his reputation has faded accordingly. Elgar's so-called imperialist manner was in fact much more rooted in the past than in the present - in visions of medieval chivalry, above all in the plays of Shakespeare, of which he had a scholar's knowledge. The quintessential Elgarian work is Falstaff: here his public and private voices come together and, at the end, chivalric splendour fades into wistfulness, then final darkness, with that searing sense of loss which is rarely absent from Elgar's music.

Moore is eloquent on the topic of loss. His short book is a distillation of his much larger Edward Elgar: A creative life, published in 1984 and generally acknowledged to be the most authoritative work on the composer to whom, as Timothy Day remarks in The Cambridge Companion, Moore "clearly feels reverence and an almost mystical attachment". Indeed one might almost imagine its exquisitely wrought prose as an autobiography dictated from beyond the grave, so empathetic is Moore to Elgar's hypersensitive personality. But the new book ends on a disappointingly sour note. Edward Elgar: A creative life had included an extensive account of Elgar's attempt to write his Third Symphony to a BBC commission in the last year of his life. Since the publication of that earlier volume, Anthony Payne's 'elaboration' of Elgar's sketches has confounded almost all those who had doubted that such a splendidly convincing work could emerge from such apparent incompleteness. Not Moore, however, who, taking at face value the composer's expressed wish that "no one must tinker" with the work (though disregarding Elgar's equally authoritative remark to his doctor that "If I can't complete the Third Symphony, someone will complete it - or write a better one - in fifty or five hundred years"), dismisses Payne's version without mentioning it by name: "if [Elgar] himself had drawn no synthesis from the disparate materials", he concludes, "how void of meaning must be any outside attempt to do it in his place".

Moore now even seems to want to diminish what Elgar himself achieved by distorting the facts: "A second subject rose apparently from a friendship with a woman half his age who had pursued him", he writes, though he knows well that it was Elgar who ardently pursued the woman in question - Vera Hockman - and that Elgar wrote "V. H.'s own theme" over the sketch of the second subject of the first movement referred to. It is one of his most affecting melodies. (The full story of Elgar's last muse, who inspiration fired his final burst of creativity, can be read in Kevin Allen's book Elgar in Love).

Like the Third Symphony, the realization of the Piano Concerto that Robert Walker has worked on for many years (and which is now available as a recording from Dutton, played by David Owen Nom's with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones) is based on incomplete sketches and fragments, but in this case also some piano improvisations that Elgar committed to disc in 1929, the same year that he wrote down a version of the middle movement as a short score for two pianos and gave it to Harriet Cohen. Elgar began sketching ideas for a piano concerto in 1913, and was still thinking about the piece shortly before his death. From the evidence of Walker's realization, however, Elgar's ideas hadn't reached as convincing a formal coherence as in the Third Symphony. The first movement, for instance, begins with a haunting melody in Elgar's favourite rocking rhythm, which Elgar orchestrated himself; the mood is similar to the first movement of the Cello Concerto. The contrasting material, however, takes us into very different territory, sometimes recalling the urbane jauntiness and pageantry of the Cockaigne overture: this material sits uneasily alongside the first idea, and I personally would have preferred a first movement centred firmly and perhaps exclusively on the emotional world of its opening. Then the contrast with the middle movement, a light-hearted and charming intermezzo, would have been more marked and effective, and jauntiness and pageantry left for the finale.

As it is, the finale is not totally convincing and contains a lot of note-spinning. Walker has done an admirable job is assembling and scoring these sketches in a convincingly authentic manner, and the opening is so good that it alone justifies performing the Concerto; yet I was left unsatisfied. This is quite a different case from the Third Symphony where he was overtaken by illness and death; if Elgar had really wanted to complete the Concerto, he had plenty of time and opportunity to do so. But it seems that his heart wasn't finally in it.