Elgar is Misunderstood
I once met a composer (English, I might add), who told me he liked to think of all music as being either French or German. This seemed odd, but once I tried it out, I found I knew fairly immediately what he meant. It was especially interesting with English music. Vaughan Williams and Delius told me straight away that they were “French”, whereas Elgar was of course German”. It wasn’t too difficult to see why either: his use of leitmotif, chromaticism, and the music’s general flavour feels Germanic. Indeed, Elgar openly acknowledged the inheritance of Schumann, Brahms and Wagner. How then, can we explain the paradox of his being regarded as so quintessentially English?Partly perhaps, through the English being all too aware that, since the time of Purcell, no Englishman could really have been said to have contributed to the European mainstream. Partly too, by the English being curiously unable to let him be part of it. His character is also confusing. In most of the images of him we see the classic Edwardian establishment figure. The moustache, the tweed; all seems secure and solid. But scratch this veneer ever so slightly and a deeply insecure personality emerges, all too aware of the social heights he has scaled. Not a product of the musical establishment, but an autodidact; not part of the established church, but a Roman Catholic outsider; not an aristocrat or from the genteel middle class, but a humble shopkeeper’s son. And so it is with the music. Beneath the skin of Edwardian gesture and the pomp of Empire, (so much a manifestation of his need to be accepted,) flows a deep river of raw emotion, which, when it breaks the surface, affects the listener in ways no other music can.Edwardian hubris and neurasthenia combined, a potent mix which finds its greatest expression in Elgar’s violin concerto.For many years Elgar had harboured hopes of becoming a real violin virtuoso himself and though this ambition did not materialize, the instrument remained the natural recipient of his most intimate thoughts. Difficult to overstress this; we are, when we hear the sound of the violin in this work, really hearing Elgar’s voice. So what then is this Violin Concerto all about? If it can be about anything, it must be about love, and about the effects of time; and if Elgar were to have written only one work, it would probably have been this Violin Concerto. Like all his best music, it appears to come from a need to confess; indeed, it seems to carry the whole story of a private world. Written at the apex of his short-lived celebratory status, this work can be nothing less than a coded love song. A love lost to a man approaching the disappointment of late middle age who is yet enjoying, at last, some worldly success. He inscribes the Concerto, “Aquí está encerrada el alma de …..”; – “Herein is enshrined the soul of …..”. It is extremely unlikely that we shall ever know definitively the identity of the soul entombed, but with Elgar, no accident that he has us guessing. He balances his need to let out his secret feelings with a contrary need for the facts themselves to remain secret. Michael Kennedy, in his wonderful “Portrait of Elgar”, feels that Elgar’s deathbed remark to his friend Ernest Newman had a direct bearing on this puzzle as it did on that other Elgarian puzzle, the Enigma Variations. Ernest Newman never divulged what this remark was, saying only years later, “It explains a good deal in him that has always been obscure or puzzling to us; it has a particular bearing, I am convinced, on that passion of his for public mystification.”The first movement begins with an extended tutti. Elgar allows us to hear all the material, though in truncated and compressed forms. The work’s opening phrase is wonderfully wrong-footing harmonically and apart from a few moments of repose when we hear the clarinet offering up the second subject for the first time, nothing settles. That first phrase – a sort of motto for the whole work – is at last answered with the soloist’s entry by way of the first full cadence; the solo violin, (or Elgar himself), agreeing to step out and meet life’s challenge. The second movement must be a portrait of the loved one so enigmatically conjured in the works dedication. Whereas, in the first movement, her effect is felt through the second theme and can only influence to an extent upon life’s headlong rush, here, she and the feelings she arouses, result in a touching vision both of great innocence and of deep love.The long finale commences, and largely remains, in the present tense; a present tense of unhappy turbulence and uncertainty. Though at times consoled with a secondary theme of tender comfort, this impression is never really shaken off until we start to hear a theme from the second movement. But its call summons not a triumphant dash to the end, as at first seems likely, but a winding down into the world of memory. This strange and unique accompanied cadenza is the work’s masterstroke and as Elgar finally re-emerges from this world of shadows and remembrance the future can at last be faced.