Elgar in the wasteland

Elgar in the wasteland


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2007

A farmer’s wife on BBC’s Newsnight was complaining bitterly the other night about the Blair government’s bias against the countryside. Not only had it banned fox-hunting and bungled compensation for the mad cow and foot-and-mouth disasters, it was now refusing to grant subsidy to celebrate Edward Elgar’s 150th anniversary. This made it anti-rural and unpatriotic.
Interesting thought. For the past two months the Daily Telegraph has been whipping up an editorial froth on an almost daily basis about the greatness of our national composer. It has argued, with more heat than light, that Elgar ranks among the most important composers that ever lived and is deserving of the biggest imaginable birthday fest. Some of the Telegraph’s terriers have come nipping at my ankles for daring to suggest on the BBC and in print that Elgar is, apart from three undeniable masterpieces, of little consequence to the modern world. He was reactionary in every way, innovated very little and, apart from breaking England’s musical drought, means little to other people – proof of which can be found in the stern silence with which his anniversary year is being greeted in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Now, along comes our country spokeswoman and confirms my point. Elgar, in her view, is an emblem of rural England – as Thomas Koschat is of Austrian Carinthia, for instance, and Hugo Alfven (if I’m not mistaken) of Swedish Dalarna.
I couldn’t agree with her more, but where does that leave the http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/06/02/do0207.xml, “>Telegraph jingoists, shouting vainly that Elgar is the greatest, when the world simply does not want to know?


  • cuchulkhan says:

    One can innovate and progress into the abyss. These things are not good in and of themselves.

  • John Harris says:

    If the world doesn’t want to know about Elgar then that is the world’s loss. It doesn’t want to know about Liszt’s “Gran” Mass or “Christus” either. Elgar’s music is about eternal things, not just rural England: what about “Gerontius” and the 2nd Symphony, for a start? Innovation isn’t enough to measure greatness by or Glass and Satie would be classed alongside Beethoven.

  • John K says:

    Why the hullabaloo for the centrality of Elgar, and not two other modern British composers with greater breadth, innovation, and imaginative power, such as Britten, one of the greatest operatic composers of all time, or Ralph Vaughan Williams, a far better symphonist than Elgar? Will the people pouting be similarly put out if there are no widescale celebrations for the anniversaries of some of the other 19th and 20th century composers to emerge from Britain, such as Coleridge-Taylor, Bax, Arnold, Bliss, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Tavenner, etc.? I doubt it.

  • Are you aware of the Elgar Festival this summer at the Fisher Center at Bard College in New York State? It will include influential music from others in Elgar’s musical world – Bliss, Faure, and Debussy.
    NL: Yes, I’m aware. It confirms my point: upstate Bard is the only place in America to focus on Elgar.

  • John Richmond says:

    And now, a word from Peoria, Illinois, which has a remarkably fine symphony orchestra and an excellent conductor, David Commanday. However…in the past two-three seasons, we have suffered through Miss Hahn in the violin concerto (nothing wrong with H. Hahn, just the concerto), someone else in the cello concerto, a trifle or two composed by Elgar, and the Enigma Variations. Both concertos were turgid, aimless, wandering bits of musical mud. If one may describe mud as wandering, aimless, or musical. By the time the concert-going public got to the Enigma Variations (quite the best music of all the Elgar offered us by Mr. Commanday), even they–the Variations–weren’t all that impressive. Applause was, shall I say, polite. Indeed, let us hear more Vaughan Williams and–for me, in smaller doses–Britten.

  • John Harris says:

    “Of little consequence to the modern world” comes as close as makes no difference to “irrelevant”, a handy word for dismissing the world’s cultural/intellectual heritage.

  • Anonymous says:

    I wonder how much experience the Illinois orchestra and conductor had had of Elgar? It is true he can seem muddy and turgid in the wrong hands, and that includes the hands of some English conductors. Try the Solti recordings of the two symphonies, available at bargain price, and if you still find Elgar heavy-going and his orchestration dull then call it a day.

  • Foster Beyers says:

    This comment is concerning your article about Vladimir Jurowski. He did not make his US debut 2 years ago. I saw him do a fantastic Firebird with the Minnesota Orchestra about 7 or 8 years ago and I know he did Wozzeck at Sante Fe the same year.
    Loved all your books including the most recent.
    Many thanks for the information – I missed that.

  • Peter says:

    Here in Canada the CBC devoted four episodes of its weekly choral music program (Choral Concert)to Elgar’s choral works.
    I found it inexpressibly dull and tuned out after the first program.