> OH MY HORSES! ELGAR AND THE GREAT WAR. [PS]: Book Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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OH MY HORSES! ELGAR AND THE GREAT WAR.

THE MUSIC OF ELGAR, vol 2.

Edited by Lewis Foreman. Elgar Editions (20 High St. Rickmansworth, Herts WD3 1ER £25. ISBN)

ISBN 9537082 3 3 XVI +£4.96 pp, 109 b/w illustrations, 20 music examples, CD.

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Elgar has, generally speaking, been well served by those writing about him and not least by this latest volume which explores in depth his life and works during 1914-18. But – and this enhances the value of this generous, competitively priced release – it does not confine itself to Elgar but seeks to place him in the context of British music, even British history generally, during those years. He is the "lead player" therein, but that is as it should be, because by almost universal consent, he was regarded as Britain’s greatest composer at that time (I say "almost" as this book does, here and there, note in passing some mean-spirited comments by musicians associated with Cambridge University – but we all know about those). Thus we have exceptionally valuable articles from Jeremy Dibble underlining the overwhelmingly German-based character of British serious music before 1914 (nothing was ever quite the same in this respect after the War), from the Editor, brilliantly reviewing music performance in this country during 1914-18 and from Stephen Lloyd who puts the spotlight on music in Bournemouth in those years.

On Elgar himself Andrew Neill views his war though the pages on Lady Elgar’s diary and later on, studies Elgar’s wartime output generally and, in more detail, the "non-war" music (Starlight Express and Sanguine Far), Joseph Herter looks at Polonia, Brian Trowell the "Brinkwells" chamber music, John Norris The Spirit of England and the vicissitudes this fine work endured in its gestation and the Editor analyses the Cammaerts recitations with music. The war was a tragic time for all, Elgar included; the casualties included the son of his one-time fiancée Helen Weaver (we need not necessarily accept Mr Trowell’s suggestion that this was a factor in the Brinkwells music), his collaborator, Rudyard Kipling’s son John and, discussed here in an article by Charles Hooey, the baritone Charles Mott, whose part in The Fringes of the Fleet (words Kipling, music Elgar) may be appreciated here in the accompanying CD which stimulatingly gathers together appropriate recordings – not all of Elgar's music, incidentally – from 1914-18, the 1930s and live performances conducted by Leslie Head in the 1970s. Probably most thought–provoking of all is Bernard Porter on "Elgar and Empire" which questions (and I broadly agree with him) whether Elgar was an imperialist, still less a "jingoist" composer. Again the CD, which includes extracts from The Crown of India and the 1924 Pageant of Empire helps us make up our own minds on this. Several of the chapters have previously appeared in other publications, especially the Elgar Society Journal, but they have been revised and usually expanded for insertion here.

The Reference Section at the back includes an Elgarian Chronology 1914-18, drawn from various sources including Lady Elgar’s diary (a few overlaps are unavoidable) and a comprehensive Bibliography and Discography. Production is excellent with many fascinating illustrations and for a book of this size I noticed few misprints. There are two minor points on which to take issue. Charles Mott died of wounds during the Third Battle of the Aisne, not the Second Battle of the Marne which did not take place until July 1918 (cf.p442). And for the Editor to say (p.284) that the 1942 Binyon version of Carillon "disappeared without trace" is not quite correct; as recently as 1989 I spoke this myself in a concert by a Doncaster orchestra (admittedly in quality it falls breathtakingly short of Cammaerts’ original, and that is not great poetry).

All in all this volume should be essential reading for all those interested, not just in Elgar but in British music as a whole.

 

P L Scowcroft

 

CD contents: ELGAR Carillon (Henry Ainley, SO, composer); Fringes of the Fleet (Mott, Henry, Stewart, Barratt, SO, Elgar); Carillon (Alvar Liddell, Kensington SO/Leslie Head), Hail Immemorial Ind (Carol Leatherby, KSO/Head); Immortal Legions; Song of Union (Anthony Ransome, KSO and choir, Head); BLISS Spring Offensive (Basil Maine); STANFORD Farewell (Peter Dawson); COWEN We Sweep the Seas (Harry Dearth); Paul RUBENS Your King and Country Want You (Maggie Teyte). [77.46]

Chris Fifield has also read this book

Despite the fairly substantial amount of written material already available on the subject of Elgar, it is always good to have more, especially when entrusted to the editorially safe pair of hands of Lewis Foreman, and also when given a new slant, this time Elgar and the impact of the First World War on him and on British music in general. He has assembled a masterful collection of essays long and short from eminent authors and academics, though the latter word is not one that should put off any interested reader, for the material is presented in a far from stereotypically dry-as-dust style. By way of a Prologue, it begins with Andrew Neill reviewing the war from the perspective of the 57 year-old Elgar, but as seen through the diaries of his wife. Elgar contributed hard to the war effort by giving concerts, conducting a great deal, and of course writing music such as the Spirit of England, which Neill quite correctly describes as a Requiem rather than a call to arms. Alice Elgar ensured her husband could enjoy a creative peace at Brinkwells in the Sussex countryside, for he was not only struggling to maintain his physical health, but also a composer’s block.

Part One is subtitled Life and Times, Elgar and Music in England during the war years. Jeremy Dibble, expert on Parry and Stanford, writes fully and interestingly on the subject of Germany, German artists, and Elgar’s relationship with them. This close affinity presented him (and them) with a dilemma from which he emerges far more honourably than they (it was the British use of dum-dum bullets which caused conductor Hans Richter and composer Max Bruch to renounce their Doctorates of Music from Oxford and Cambridge respectively, an ineffective course of action as they had been conferred in honoris causa). By the end of the war the strong link to German music was all but broken. The first of two contributions from Foreman traces British music in Wartime, while Andrew Neill focuses specifically on Bournemouth, the coastal resort at whose epicentre was Dan Godfrey, a hugely significant figure when it came to the promotion of British composers and performers. Bernard Porter deals with music, nationalism and the war (cogently arguing against the jingoism of which Elgar is usually accused by virtue of such titles as ‘Spirit of England’), and Neill closes this section with an assessment of Elgar’s creative challenge during the four years the war lasted.

Part Two has six essays under the subtitle of Elgar’s music in wartime. Joseph Herter discusses Polonia, Brian Trowell writes on the chamber music written at Brinkwells, John Norris on the Spirit of England once again, while Foreman analyses the Cammaerts recitations relating to Elgar’s war music. Charles Hooey writes on the baritone Charles Mott, killed at the Somme at the age of thirty-seven and admired by Elgar from the moment he first heard him sing at Covent Garden in 1914, and described by fellow baritone Roy Henderson as a ‘superb singer who would have been No.1 baritone in England had he lived’. Mott took the lynchpin role of the Organ Grinder in Starlight Express the following year at the Kingsway Theatre, not a happy time for Elgar who resented criticism of the story and its staging, though his music was praised.

There are copious illustrations, and a comprehensive reference section including Martin Bird’s Elgarian Wartime Chronology, a bibliography and discography, as well as a note on the CD which comes with the book, and on which Charles Mott can be heard as one of the four baritones singing Fringes of the Fleet. There are 17 tracks, the earliest recorded in 1915, the latest from Leslie Head’s private recordings with his Kensington Symphony Orchestra in 1975, all of them placed in the trusty hands of Mike Dutton for excellent remastering. One forgets how wonderful was the voice of yet another baritone, Peter Dawson (recorded in 1934 singing Stanford’s Farewell from Songs of the Fleet).

As to the title, it comes from a letter Elgar wrote to Frank Schuster on 25 August 1914 -
Concerning the war I say nothing - the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses - oh! my beloved animals - the men - and women can go to hell - but my horses; - I walk round and round this room cursing God for allowing dumb brutes to be tortured - let Him kill his human beings but - how CAN HE? Oh, my horses.

For the eminently reasonable price it commands, this is a book for every self-respecting Elgarian, and for those to whom the call awaits.

Christopher Fifield

 


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