In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).
My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.
When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:
My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.
Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.
While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”
When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:
This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”
The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.