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If you could only have one, would it be Elgar or Vaughan Williams?

June 8, 2018 by norman lebrecht

84 comments.


From the new Lebrecht Album of the Week:

If I had to choose Elgar or VW for a desert island, I know which it would be. Elgar these days seems over-familiar, where Vaughan Williams loses none of his capacity to surprise.

You would not automatically guess that from …

Read on here.

Dog person?

Or cat

UPDATE: Responses on social media are running 2-1 in VW’s favour. Can Elgar score in extra time?


Comments (84)

  1. SergioM says:

    No question Elgar. If I was being held captive by a foreign enemy and they were going to torture me to reveal what I knew, all they would have to do is play some VW and I would tell them everything

    1. Algot says:

      Over-familiar ? Nonsense. Then most of classical music is. It must be the old “familiarity breeds contempt” ….

  2. David Leibowitz says:

    Both great. Both different. RVW, for me, is the richer, deeper musical voice. But honestly, why choose? And I’ve never seen this “desert island with a sound system” we’ve been hearing about all these years except in a New Yorker cartoon.

  3. Jean says:

    When was the last time we heard a symphony of Vaughan Williams in some concert hall in central Europe ?

    1. MacroV says:

      When was the last time you heard anything of Elgar in Central Europe besides Enigma or the Cello Concerto?

      1. Saxon Broken says:

        The VPO toured Elgar around Europe last year.

      2. Gary Carpenter says:

        Berlin Staatskapelle regularly programs the two Elgar symphonies and has toured the second around the world. Berlin Phil under Kyril Petrenko has done the second; Barenboim has performed Gerontius both with the Berlin Philharmoniker and the Staatskapelle. He gets done regularly in Scandinavia – he gets about…

    2. Peter Owen says:

      No. 5, Frankurt a couple of years ago. It’s on youtube and seems to have gone down well.

    3. Dr Robert Davidson says:

      That’s a shame for that little corner of the world

  4. barry guerrero says:

    desert island: Vaughan Williams. Desert island pet: cat, but I suppose a dog could be more useful on a desert island.

  5. Anthony Kershaw says:

    Not even close, RVW.

    Elgar—great fiddle Concerto, 2 good symphonies, Alassio and Enigma are amazing!

    That’s about it. Lots of music to pick up dead peasants. Jingoistic crap.

    1. Sue says:

      Sad person indeed.

    2. Antony Walker says:

      The Dream of Gerontius is a magnificent work.

      1. Novagerio says:

        And The Apostles from 1903 is the mightiest Oratorio since Händel’s Messiah (!)

    3. Sue says:

      I expect that’s why Ireland was neutral during WW2. So much easier when you don’t have to save lives by putting your own on the line and then referring to “jingoism”. No wonder you people drink!!

      1. Eamonn says:

        Sue you need to wise up, you Brexiteers will go bust. VW and Elgar are both naff.

      2. Slarthybardfast says:

        Off topic and arrogant remark you need to stop trolling when you dislike others opinions.

        You forget the British army, navy etc was mostly, Irish!

        1. Saxon Broken says:

          Er…not in WWII. (Or WWI either).

          And while the army recruited heavily in Ireland in the Napoleonic Wars, Wellington’s army at Waterloo was mainly German (even if Wellington himself was born in Ireland).

  6. Adam Stern says:

    I love them both, but I couldn’t imagine life without Vaughan Williams. He has been my favorite 20th-century composer for well over forty years now, and I can’t foresee a change in his ranking. Whether I’m performing or listening to his music, it reaches into the very deepest part of my soul; it wasn’t surprising to learn what a kind and decent human being he was, as it’s certainly reflected in his creations. Jill Halstead, in her book on Vaughan Williams’ pupil Ruth Gipps, avers that Gipps considered RVW “the only altogether good person she ever met.” Not a prerequisite for creating great music, of course, but so nice to know.

  7. David R Osborne says:

    VW certainly does have the capacity to surprise- his violin concerto accademico is surprisingly woeful. I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert island with that. On the other hand the Sea Pictures would fit in quite nicely. Elgar for me.

    1. Adam Stern says:

      I cannot resist quoting Simona Packenham’s viewpoint on Vaughan Williams’ “Accademico”:

      >> How to convey the charm of this little concerto? To speak of it truthfully is to confess that it lacks colour, lacks passion and is thin in texture – three large defects to the ears of many a listener. But if I were invited to one of the B.B.C.’s desert islands, accompanied only by a gramophone and eight records, this concerto would be the first music I would choose to pack. I fell in love with it at first hearing and have not found it lose one note of its appeal after an infinite number of repetitions. It is of all the works I know one of the most lasting and companionable.

      1. David R Osborne says:

        That is very funny. The lady clearly had quite unconventional taste, because that concerto is a grade A stinker.

        1. Adam Stern says:

          Hmm… One week from tomorrow I’m conducting it for the second time in my career, and I’m even more in love with it than I was the first time.

        2. Hilary says:

          Not for the first time (with you) I beg to differ. It’s one of my favourite pieces by RVW. It’s title needs a rethink though.

  8. Novagerio says:

    Listen to John Barbirolli’s Live recording of the RVW 6th and get serious….

    1. Sue says:

      Exactly. I love Thomas Tallis Fantasia above all.

    2. David R Osborne says:

      What fun! The Vaughan Williams 6th just happens to be a favourite symphony of mine. As usual what amuses about Slipped Disc is how it is possible to make a specific argument about a specific idea or in this case work, and then sit back and watch the unrelated assumptions roll in. Because that’s as a rule how classical music people have been taught to think.

      Getting back to the dreadful but very appropriately named Concerto Accademico, here’s the formula. Devise a couple of brief, jaunty, pseudo English folk sounding motifs and pad them out for a few minutes with some spiky early 20th century violin technical ‘filler’… I mean development. That sums up the 1st and 3rd movements- it is so obvious he’s just going through the motions.

      Much of Vaughan Williams work is like that, because he felt obliged to keep composing when he should not have. I like Debussy’s thoughts on this:

      “They say some composers can write, regularly, so much music a day. I have forced myself to work when I least felt like it, and I have done things which did not seem bad at the time. I would let those compositions lie for a couple of days. Then I would find that they were only fit for the wastebasket.”

      The first thing a real composer needs is, if you’ll pardon the crudity, a ‘bullshit filter’. The ability to know the difference between real inspiration and the other. The above quote also grants one the license to loaf around guilt-free doing nothing for extended periods.

      The 2nd movement, by the way, is a lot better than I remember it being.

      1. David R Osborne says:

        Sorry, in this case make that ‘cowpat filter’.

      2. Ross Amico says:

        Point taken. However, if all my favorite composers employed “the bullshit filter,” my world would certainly be a poorer place. Yeah, sometimes you have to wade through a lot of noodling, but then how wonderful to stumble across a gorgeous trifle by Vaughan Williams, Martinu, Sibelius, etc. Undoubtedly there are plenty of lesser composers who only wish they could reach that level of bullshit.

        1. David R Osborne says:

          Three excellent composers no doubt.

  9. Donald Hansen says:

    Just how much VW have you heard? And let’s forget about the Cowpat name for the 3rd Symphony. It speaks of the desolate, war-torn battlefields of Flanders in 1917 when he was serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He wrote that “it’s really war-music.” Then there’s Job, a real masterpiece, and all nine symphonies etc. etc. etc. There is no end to the enjoyment you get from his music. Elgar is fine, but VW is the one to take to that island. Period.

    1. Donald Hansen says:

      To put the above comments in context, they are in response to comments made by a poster whose comments have apparently been deleted. The poster below mine was also responding to the same.

      1. Donald Hansen says:

        I mean Alex Davies, not Get Real.

    2. Get Real says:

      Both are real naff mate, no one in Europe listens to them, they want LVB etc.

      1. Donald Hansen says:

        If that is the case, it is their loss.

        1. Eamonn says:

          VW and Elgar are not great composers like Bach or LVB, they would not be missed by anyone at all who wants cowpats and Colonel blimp music?

  10. Alex Davies says:

    I hope you’re not serious.

  11. bratschegirl says:

    Hard to choose, but I think ultimately RVW because I can’t imagine living without the Tallis fantasy. Tough to give up Nimrod, though (mostly in the original orchestral version, but also a huge fan of the Lux Aeterna setting done by John Cameron, especially in the voces8 performance).

  12. Alex Davies says:

    One vote for RVW.

  13. PETER LONGSHAW says:

    near impossible as I love VW: Sir John in Love; symphonies 1/2/5; oboe concerto which I heard aged 15 in my first live concert plated by Lady Barbirolli; BUT The Apostles is the greatest choral work since Bach (I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first US performance for 100 years) and Elgar1 (flew to Chicago to hear Sir MARK) are even greater….and for me the violin concerto is much deeper than the cello concerto; first time I hear it live was with KREMER & Kondrashin! Kremer played it for the QEMC Belgian competition where he came 3rd to the lamented Hirschhorn
    ELGAR 1 seems to be taking off….Petrenko (RLPO) Steffens Dausgaard ORAMO (greatest living Elgarian) Karabits etc and of course Kirill Petrenko did Elgar 2 with BPO while Rattle did little Elgar or VW…and of course Barenboim has loved Elgar for years, influenced by his mentor JB & du Pre…though he did do a fine DG VW LP inc the tuba concerto

    1. Stuart says:

      If anything, this has to be a record for the number of names dropped in two short paragraphs. You do indeed love your RVW if you love Sir John in Love (tedious) and think The Apostles is the greatest choral work since Bach (not buying that one).

      1. Stuart says:

        Managed not to mention Elgar in my reference to The Apostles – my bad.

      2. PETER LONGSHAW says:

        to drop some more names, Oleg Caetani (son of Igor Markevich) did SIR JOHN IN LOVE at ENO and presumably found it not tedious (though At the Boar’s Head is more succinct as, more relevantly here, is Elgar’s Falstaff for which I recommend Barenboim’s DVD in Berlin with the BPO. FOR EVEN MORE NAMES I add that hearing The Apostles live has made me rate it as high as Bach, under Handford, Handley, Rozhdestvensky, Elder, Oramo, Gardner, and Botstein as well as under several THREE CHOIRS FESTIVAL conductors.

  14. msc says:

    That’s not a choice I’d like to make. Based on sheer numbers, I’d have to pick RVW’s symphonies, but I also must admit a very unfashionable love of EE’s oratorios and smaller choral works. But RVW’s are also great. Both their corpora of chamber music are sadly and unfairly neglected. At least we don’t have to chose.
    European orchestra’s neglect of both, but more so RVW, is just a variation on jingoism. There is still a bit of a prejudice against things British among much of the rest of Europe (Shakespeare being a notable exception). I am glad to see conductors like Barenboim and Petrenko and Oramo taking up Elgar. I am sure that soon RVW will receive his due abroad. Meanwhile, there are encouraging signs like Kalmar’s advocacy of RVW in Oregon.
    I know RVW would probably not have been amused, but we named our last dog after him.

  15. MacroV says:

    I don’t know Vaughan Williams’ symphonies very well, except for A Sea Symphony (#1), which I sang once and love dearly, wish more American orchestras would play it. And #4, another of his wartime symphonies, IIRC. Certainly it sounded as such when I saw Elgar Howarth conduct it in Seattle a quarter-century ago, one of my most unforgettable concertgoing experiences.

    I like the Elgar symphonies and concertos, In the South and other works, and Enigma, though it’s overrepresented. But it does seem that outside the UK that’s all you hear of him.

    1. Olassus says:

      Barenboim just did Gerontius in Berlin, and Petrenko (K) did the violin concerto in Munich three years ago, convincingly with Julia Fischer. But Petrenko (V) ruined the Enigma Variations in Geneva recently — I heard it on the radio and sat in the car to wait till the end to learn the identity of the fool on the podium, it was that bad.

      RVW hardly has a toehold on the Continent, alas. On a level with Tubin. The toehold of course would be the Tallis Fantasia, which even Karajan conducted. I have not heard a live RVW symphony anywhere since Previn did the London 25 years ago.

  16. Ben Cobley says:

    There is a strange thing going on here. At the time of the Proms last year Daniel Barenboim pronounced Elgar as an exemplar of European unity, with his music very much located in the European tradition, showing how the best of Britain was European in character. There seemed to me an unspoken contrast with an apparent nationalistic, parochial Vaughan Williams.

    Yet Elgar’s music seems to me much more obviously bombastic and assertive in a nationalistic way. Vaughan Williams didn’t go down those pathways. He sought out folk songs and explored the wonders of Tudor polyphony in an effort to find a properly English voice in music. He is not assertively nationalistic at all, though he did talk about his music as ‘musical nationalism’ in the vein of Sibelius.

    For me, listening to VW’s music is a continuous, wonderful discovery, especially in the symphonies. He is also a wonderful character, who felt passionately about contributing to his society and community – and did it. I like Elgar, but I love VW.

  17. Dr Robert Davidson says:

    VW for me. As you say, he is full of surprises and never ceases to sound fresh to my ears, and has that inimitable sense of utter sincerity.

  18. Dr Robert Davidson says:

    However they can’t be banished from my heart which longs for both on a regular basis.

  19. Erwin says:

    The Oboe Concerto of VW is such a lovely work:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P0TaRKQPbE

    1. Olassus says:

      Yes. CHANDOS, which had a beautiful recording of it paired with the Pastoral, has deleted its version, and there is no availability of used copies.

      1. Stuart says:

        It is available on iTunes

  20. Jake says:

    Where is the electricity coming from to play these discs anyhow? It’s a desert island after all… (PS – RVW all the way).

  21. Cubs Fan says:

    Elgar no question. The two symphonies are endlessly interesting, fascinating and extraordinarily beautiful and profound. And sadly neglected in concert, like RVW.

    1. David R Osborne says:

      There is sort of a third you know, and it contains some fantastic music.

      1. Cubs Fan says:

        I’ve played Payne’s completion twice now. When you sit through 4-5 rehearsals, play the work in concert, you really get to know it far better than listening alone, or even following a score. I’m still not convinced. The first movement doesn’t sound Elgarian – and yet, it’s his scoring and everything – for a while. But no matter how good the work is, it doesn’t have the master’s touch. There’s a lot of Elgar to love; Falstaff is another extraordinary work.

        1. David R Osborne says:

          Funny, I’ve heard before that the parts of the 3rd people find the least Elgarian are the bit’s he came closest to finishing. I really like the 2nd movement, it has a real grace and charm to it. Payne perhaps? Who knows.

      2. Ross Amico says:

        I like the “Third” very much, too, though it can hardly be considered canon. Beautiful blend of completion and conjecture on Anthony Payne’s part.

  22. Ross Amico says:

    Okay, I’ve dodged the challenge long enough. I love Elgar — the symphonies, the concertos, the oratorios, the orchestral suites, overtures, and marches — and the “Enigma Variations” is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. But when I go to the shelf, I am more likely to choose Vaughan Williams. I wouldn’t want to be without either composer, but if both were hanging off a cliff by their fingernails and screaming for my assistance, I’d have to extend my hand to Vaughan Williams (even though physically he appears to be heavier).

  23. Rob says:

    Elgar liked VWs music. VW thought nothing of Mahler as a composer. I can’t live without the Sea Symphony Or Elgar 2.

    We need both.

  24. Sue says:

    I feel lucky: I can have both R V-W and Elgar rather than either. I love “Sea Pictures” and “Enigma” and “Dream of Gerontius” from the latter and the masterful “Thomas Tallis Fantasia” from the former. Absolutely wonderful.

  25. Rgiarola says:

    VW for sure. He is understimated even in the UK, I don’t know for sure the reason. Elgar has the biggest top-notch moments of british empire soundtrack, but nothing comparing to the mistery of the VW 9 symphonies.

    By the way, I love Kees Bagel interpretation with Bornemouth a must.

    1. PETER LONGSHAW says:

      yes KEES BAKELS is a much undervalued VW interpreter, sad that he was ill and the cycle was completed by Paul Daniel (also a fine VW man, to be fair)

  26. JMB says:

    Aaron Copland once said, “Listening to the fifth symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.”

    1. PETER LONGSHAW says:

      but AC’s symphonies are much inferior……and who set the song ‘I bought me a cow’ ? And what about Appalachian Spring etc…no cows in America?
      even if English music was about the countryside, why is that inferior to, say, Monet’s Haystacks? the 5th is a deeply spiritual piece; VW’s 9 are worth far more to me than Bruckner’s 9; and VW finished his number 9 himself…

      1. Ross Amico says:

        “I bought me a cat.” Yes, it is peculiar that Copland would assess the experience of listening to RVW’s music so. Then again, it’s been my experience that composers can be a bitchy lot. Did Stravinsky have anything nice to say about anyone?

        1. Adam Stern says:

          Well, yes, although he simultaneously took someone down in the process:

          “I heard Rosenkavalier for the first time after the war and I confess I prefer Gilbert and Sullivan…Sullivan has a sense of timing and punctuation which I have never been able to find in Strauss.”

        2. PETER LONGSHAW says:

          yes..that is the title but surely one of the verses begins with a cow?

          1. Ross Amico says:

            I stand corrected. Once again, pedantry comes before the fall.

  27. Rob says:

    Did Copland have a fear of Shostakovich? Shostakovich was such a giant.

    1. Cubs Fan says:

      Aaron Copland also wrote something like the difference between Beethoven and Mahler is like a Great Man walking down the street and someone pretending to be a great man walking down the street. Copland’s music by and large is vanishing from concert halls – and good riddance! He’s primarily represented these days by Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man and the god-awful Lincoln Portrait. His symphonies are wretched – only the 3rd shows up – and even then rarely. His music has not worn well and most of it has disappeared. Not so Mahler. I would rather listen to any RVW symphony (The London, please!) than anything of Copland. I met him once, almost 50 years ago. Very nice man, very humble really. He tried to improve the musical taste of America, and he failed.

      1. Ross Amico says:

        Mercy! Give the guy a break. I love his stuff. You’re right, though, the same pieces get played fairly frequently, and the rest can be enjoyed for the most part only through recordings. I count myself lucky (sort of) to have heard the Organ Symphony live a few years back. Not his most appealing piece, but I find any Copland, even the “failures,” worth hearing.

      2. Novagerio says:

        Copland has so to speak invented the “American Sound”, and it’s not only Bernstein who said it. The fact is that he has a sound completely of his own, something one can’t exactly say about today’s composers. To say that his music has not worn well is totally untrue and actually impossible. One can prefer say Alban Berg rather than Schönberg, but still it’s Schönberg who changed the music history and the whole ball game!

        And personally I’d still put Copland solar systems higher than R.Harris, W.Schuman, R.Sessions, V.Thomson, P,Mennin etc,
        P.S: His modest Quiet City is my favourite work! 🙂

  28. M2N2K says:

    It is obviously better to have both, but if I had to choose one, Elgar would be my clear choice.

  29. Michael Sanderson says:

    I came to appreciate Elgar after stumbling through the double-bass part of ‘Faries and Giants’ on a schools orchestral course and then advanced to almost everything else. Some 60 years later I heard the Crown of India for the first time on the radio in Chile and was very disappointed. But there are so many gems, such as The Music Makers, which are hardly ever heard these days. RVW never quite captured me though I love the Sea Symphony, Tallis, Greensleeves and so on. On the desert island I think I would need Elgar and a dog.

    1. Rob Keeley says:

      Of course, Elgar was a dog person. No contest! 🙂

  30. Basia Jaworski says:

    There is a new (very good) recording of Elgar.’s cello concerto.
    But: what do you think about the cover?

    https://basiaconfuoco.com/…/marie-elisabeth-hecker…/

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Not a great incentive to buy the record….

      1. PETER LONGSHAW says:

        great coupling idea though! And De Waart has done more for Elgar than Simon Rattle (for example), I feel…

  31. Cubs Fan says:

    The picture channels some of Jacqueline Du Pre. And I don’t care if Rattle has done any Elgar – maybe he just doesn’t have any empathy or feeling for it. That’s ok – leave Elgar to those who really do understand and love the music.

  32. Rob Keeley says:

    Elgar is one of my all-time loves, but I can recognise that he might be a bit of an acquired taste: a very strong, distinctive flavour his music has, which you either get or you don’t. RVW, whom I also love, has perhaps more universal appeal. I couldn’t live without the
    5th Symphony, which always chokes me up, also the Pastoral, London and the quirky 8th.

    There’s plenty of less familiar Elgar to explore, the part-songs for example, and the substantial body of very high-class light music. Weirdly perhaps I am less engaged with the Cello Concerto – I much prefer the Violin Concerto, which maybe comes with less ‘baggage’!

    1. Michael Sanderson says:

      Me too! I am more moved by the violin concerto. The cello concerto seems to me to have been recorded too often at the expense of just about everything else that Elgar composed

      1. PETER LONGSHAW says:

        I also find the violin concerto more deeply affecting; the great Hugh Bean made a wonderful recording and (unlike most critics) I really love Menuhin’s later recording with Boult. Seeing him try to conduct it was not so good…
        I also prefer the First symphony to the second, though both are masterpieces. See that K Petrenko is doing the 2nd again next season in Munich.


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