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A life in letters and other writings
Kevin Allen
Ashgate Press
352pp 29 illus. Published Sept 2000 £55
ISBN 1 85928 366 7


I was standing at one of the front windows of Felix Aprahamian's home in Muswell Hill just this week, when it was mentioned to me that Elgar often could be seen, umbrella in hand, strolling past the house and down the street on his way to visit his good friend August Jaeger, who, from June 1902, lived just around the corner at 37 Curzon Road. The Jaeger (German for Hunter, ergo Nimrod, the God of Hunting) family arrived from Germany in the 1870s, though whether, to use Percy Young's words in the book's foreword, it was 'the most significant event in English musical history during the twilight days of the 19th century' is debatable. What about the Austro-Hungarian conductor Hans Richter's in 1877, and the effect he had on British orchestral playing and operatic performance standards? What of the pianist Eduard Dannreuther, who secured Wagner's visit in 1877 and did so much for the performance of Brahms' music in this country? Indeed what about Hallé himself, whose contribution to English musical life needs no further elaboration? With the qualification of Jaeger's appointment to a senior position within the publishing department of Novello's, Young's statement has a greater ring of truth. Jaeger had an astute mind and a sure nose for a good new composer, and he could not have got it more correct when Elgar came his way. He encouraged Elgar to write a symphony around the late General Gordon; it came to nothing and instead the composer produced the variations which immortalized the name of his friend and editor in 1899. Even more significantly, Jaeger had the critical powers (and courage) to tell Elgar in the artists' room after the first performance that the finale was too abrupt and needed further expansion. Though one can criticise Jaeger's thoughtless sense of timing, the result was that Elgar heeded the advice and changed the ending. The collaboration was less successful when it came to the Dream of Gerontius, and the resulting debacle of the first performance in Birmingham in the autumn of 1901 was as much the fault of Novello's dilatory approach to producing the score and parts as it was to the unfortunate chorus who had been deprived of their trainer during the summer. Nevertheless Jaeger described it as 'wonderful music, inexpressibly and most wonderfully elevating, aloof, mystic and heart-warming as by the force of a great compassion'. No such problems occurred with the later Apostles or Kingdom.

It was also thanks to Jaeger that Elgar's music was heard in Germany, and successfully too, when Julius Buths performed Enigma and later Gerontius in his (Jaeger's) native Düsseldorf. Although much of the Elgar material in the book might have appeared elsewhere before (such as the letters in books by Percy Young and Jerrold Northrop Moore, and in the memoirs of another Enigma Variations friend, Dora 'Dorabella' Penny's Memories of a Variation), it is nevertheless good to see it all housed within the covers of a book devoted entirely to the life of Jaeger. He himself foresaw the value of Elgar's letters at the time he received them, describing them as 'deeply interesting real human documents laying bare an artist's soul'. But Allen also makes clear that the bulk of correspondence between the two men is not extant, with 167 published of an estimated 240 written.

There were others of course besides Elgar with whom Jaeger had a close friendship and professional collaboration, chief among them being Sir Hubert Parry and also Richter's son-in-law Sydney Loeb, and letters to these two figures are largely published for the first time here. Other composers with whom Jaeger had dealings were Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Henry Walford Davies, whilst he campaigned positively on behalf of the choral works of the American composer Horatio Parker. Conversely he took a stand against the current popularity of Russian music and used his activities as a reviewer of concerts to air his views in print, such as 'incoherent, noisy and nerve-destroying.…May we never hear it again' (this of Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain), though he admired and largely excluded Tchaikovsky's music. These feelings were directed towards Henry Wood and his sponsor the Queen's Hall-based impresario Robert Newman, for he felt strongly that performances of Russian music were thriving at the expense of new British composers. Unsurprisingly German music found more favour, in particular the new works of Richard Strauss.

The book is in two parts. Having briefly covered Jaeger's first 35 years in the first chapter because so little is known of that period and what there is, derived from two obituaries, the next ten chapters, from the mid-1890s, go into much more detail. The second part of the book deals with Jaeger's last years from 1905 until his death from tuberculosis four years later just short of his fiftieth year. He was thoroughly burnt out, working long hours, editing, proof reading and writing analyses for new music at Novellos, whilst also reviewing concerts whenever he could for the Musical Times. From the winter of 1904-1905 he was forced to retreat to Switzerland to try to stave off the relentless progress of his disease, leaving his wife, two children, and work behind, and incurring dreadful financial hardship as a result, despite the generous continuation of his salary by Novello's. The town was called Davos (meaning 'back of beyond') and the likes of R L Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Thomas Mann had use its winter climes as a cure for pulmonary consumption. To Jaeger, as he wrote to Elgar, it was 'this Godforsaken, lonely Hole in the - the d- Alps'. He struggled gamely on, wintering in Davos and returning to England in the late spring to pick up his work once again, and, in increasingly sad letters from his 'mattress-grave', turned away from Elgar and more towards Parry and Loeb to pour out his feelings. In the summer of 1907 he returned to Muswell Hill for good and was pensioned off by Novello's.

His despair knew no bounds. On 2 December 1908 he wrote to Walford Davies 'I'm only waiting from day to day for the time when I get confined to bed, never to rise again. When I think over it all, and realize how beautiful life is and what work I might and could do, and what intellectual beauty (E[lgar's first] Symphony) there is still bought forth by men of genius - and how very soon I shall be dead to it all, dead to family and friends and sunshine and green fields and symphonies and quartets and poetry and pictures and all that makes life the great thing it is, then my heart feels heavy, heavy as lead, and tears flow readily'. His main purpose in keeping going was to attend the first London performance of Elgar's first symphony to be given by the LSO under Richter at Queen's Hall five days later on 7 December 1908, and ten years after he first encouraged the composer to write one. 'I shall hope to enjoy what I fear will be the last great musical event of my life. After that - Silentium!' He finally succumbed in the spring of 1909 and a memorial concert was held in January 1910.

Kevin Allen's book is commendably detailed and well written, with comprehensive footnotes and some hitherto unpublished photographs (notwithstanding some irritating typos, e.g. on page 22 - 'Mendelssohn' is forever prey to the printer - and on page 195). It fills another gap in that wonderfully rich period in English music from 1870 to 1910 and makes a highly fascinating read.

Christopher Fifield

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