Elgar - the first of the new

Elgar was the first of the new. Since Purcell, England had not produced a composer for the European common market. Against -much against- the background of academicians who were destined to remain dilettanti, there emerged a self-taught amateur destined to become a master.

At the time of Elgar's birth Brahms was 24, Dvorák was 16, and Wagner 44. When he died, Vaughan Williams was 62, Walton was 32, Britten was 20 and Schoenberg 60. Elgar's musical fathers were far away; many, almost all of them were of the Austo-German tradition, with Brahms, rather than Wagner, as the most powerful influence; and none of them English.

In a penetrating article in the current issue of Music and Letters Donald Mitchell goes so far as to submit 'that to find Elgar today specifically English in flavour is to expose oneself as the victim of a type of collective hallucination.' Elgar's early success on the Continent, and with Continentals, was indeed striking. It needed a Continental - Hans Richter - to introduce the Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius and the first Symphony (dedicated to him) to English audiences, and Düsseldorf heard Gerontius before London.

Hans Keller writes in Music and Musicians in June 1957, and contradicts the currently fashionable view that Elgar was not appreciated outside England.

Now playing ...

The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Benjamin Britten. The decision of the 'East Anglican' Britten (left) to record Elgar's Gerontius, with its hardline Catholic text by Cardinal Newman, was a surprising one. As a young music student Britten recorded in his diary in February 1931 that he listened on the radio to '1 minute of Elgar Symphony 2 but can stand no more,' and a few months later he condemned the Enigma Variations for their 'sonorous orchestration' which 'cloys very soon'. But in his sleeve note for the original LP release the composer William Alwyn described Newman's text as a 'Passion Play', and this may have appealed to Britten the composer of church parables.

Britten conducted an Aldeburgh Festival performance of Gerontius on June 9 1971, and the recording was made in the same month in Snape Maltings. William Mann described the concert performance as 'urgent, unsentimental and totally lacking in bombast', and Alan Blyth described the original LP release as 'a searing re-creation of the drama that I find at all times involving and convincing...Britten removes the veneer of sentimentality, even sanctimoniousness, that has for long come between us and Elgar's compulsive vision.'

The 1971 recording made by Decca, with the 'dream' cast including Peter Pears (left) and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, is one of the classics of the gramophone. In the section that leads up to the life affirming chorus Praise to the Holiest in the height Britten shows his masterly control of the large forces, and the pre-digital sound is outstanding both for the lower registers and the three dimensional sound-stage captured by the Decca recording team. Elgar was a master composer, and Britten a master musician, this Dream of Gerontius is now back in the catalogue, buy it before it is again deleted.

Inclusiveness is out of fashion in classical music today, which means if contemporary music is your scene late-romantics like Elgar are the musical equivalent of dead meat. Next month we will be at Yoshi Oida's new production of Death in Venice in Snape Maltings. We should all remember that Britten recorded Elgar's great late-romantic masterpiece, Gerontius, in July 1971 in Snape Maltings while he was composing one of the great twentieth-century operas, Death in Venice, for performance in the same venue.

I started by quoting Hans Keller's view that Elgar was 'the first of the new'. We should also remember that Keller (left) championed Britten's music from the 1940s when it was still viewed as 'new' by the establishment. He was joint author of a Britten symposium in 1952, and the composer's 1975 String Quartet No. 3, with its last movement quote from Death in Venice, is inscribed to him. Britten died on December 7 1976, and his String Quartet No. 3 was given its first performance by the Amadeus Quartet two weeks later in Snape Maltings.

Benjamin Britten and Hans Keller recognised the greatness of Elgar's music. They also recognised the importance of inclusiveness, and embraced composers from Purcell to their twentieth-century contemporaries. Two very important messages as the 150th of Elgar's birth on Saturday June 2 approaches.

The music of Britain, and Britten ...

Hans Keller's headline, the first of the new, is a wordplay on the title of a patriotic 1942 film that Elgar would have approved of. The First of the Few was a biography of R.J. Mitchell (left), the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire (the film was renamed Spitfire for US release). The title comes from Winston Churchill who used these words to describe the Battle of Britain aircrews: "Never in the face of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." And this overgrown path leads us to another great twentieth-century English composer; the soundtrack of The First of the Few, including the famous Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, was written by William Walton.

Contemporary music was as bitchy in the early twentieth-century as it is today. Elgar was not a fan of Walton's music, and said about Walton's Viola Concerto that the composer had murdered the poor unfortunate instrument. Elgar and Walton only met once, according to Lady Walton it was in the lavatory at a Worcester Three Choirs Festival concert. After the Second World War Walton fell out with Britten and Pears, and supposedly said that the all-male Billy Budd should be retitled The Bugger’s Opera or Twilight of the Sods (original production shot above).

Another late-twentieth-century composer who was a surprising champion of Elgar was Michael Tippett whose overseas concerts often included Elgar's music. In his autobiography (Hutchinson ISBN 009175307) Tippett describes a "stunning" Enigma Variations in Brussels with him conducting his beloved Leicester School Symphony Orchestra, and tells how 'afterwards a Belgian composer came to me and said, "What an extraordinary work - more interesting than Brahms' St Anthony Variations!"', and Tippett describes another Enigma played by the Saint Louis Symphony in 1968 under his baton as "one of the best performances (of the work) in the USA I guess". Tippett (left) was inclusiveness personified and embraced everything from Tallis (he made the first-ever recording of Spem in alium in 1948) through Elgar to the blues. But he also shared some of Walton's reservations about Billy Budd. Tippett stayed at Britten's house in Aldeburgh while the opera was being composed and told the story of 'a marvellous remark in the libretto - I think it got changed - when they were going to clear the decks in order to let off the gun, and the wonderful order, given by Claggart or somebody, "Clear the decks of seamen" I roared with laughter!'

Walton may have been irreverent about Billy Budd, but when the chips were down he came to Britten's aid. In 1942, the same year as The First of the Few was made, Walton appeared as a supporting witness at Britten's successful appeal for registration as a Conscientous Objectors. Britten's pacifism, like Tippett's, was controversial, but if his appeal had failed Britten could well have joined young composers such as Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth whose careers had been cut short by the previous World War, and who were lamented in the elegiac 1919 Cello Concerto of Edward Elgar. Which is where this path started.

For more on Elgar read the excruciating boredom of pure fact.
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Great Post. I have about 5 recordings of Gerontius, but the Britten is by far the best.

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