One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.
Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.
But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”
These complexities will doubtless be explored at the upcoming Bard Music Festival, “Elgar and His World,” scheduled for a series of weekends this August and October at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The Bard festival features an uneven bunch of musicians, but fortunately it will include such accomplished chamber groups as the Daedalus Quartet and Claremont Trio, as well as the sublime solo violinist Jennifer Koh. Meanwhile, we may relish the many superb Elgar performances on CD, keeping in mind that a poorly performed CD—and there are many such of Elgar—can make any composer seem hard to listen to.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which the composer described as “just an old man’s darling,” was recorded with staunch restraint, flowing grace, and eloquent emotion by the cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, both conducted by Adrian Boult for EMI Classics. Elgar’s orchestral work Enigma Variations communicates a rare personal tenderness—the variations were inspired by some of the composer’s friends—along with a sense of the passionate heights and depths of human relationships.
Enigma requires a conductor of unusual psychological nuance and direct frankness, such as Elgar himself (although his recordings were hampered by primitive sound equipment) or his friend Adrian Boult. There is also a choice of 1950’s recordings by the great French maestro Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra in the studio; a live radio broadcast; and a surprisingly idiomatic outing with the Orchestre National de France on Music & Arts. And LSO Live recently released one of the best Enigmas ever, led by England’s current dean of conductors, Colin Davis.
Elgar also triumphed in larger-scale works like Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio set to words by Cardinal Newman about a man accepting his own mortality and the prospect of heaven. As conducted on CD by the composer Benjamin Britten with the tenor Peter Pears in the title role, or on an EMI recording with Janet Baker as the angel who guides Gerontius in his last moments of life, it is a work of brooding majesty. Achievements of this rank certainly ensure Elgar’s artistic immortality—whatever Her Majesty’s Exchequer might think.