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THOUGHTS ON ELGAR'S 149th BIRTHDAY - Arthur Butterworth

It is now Friday afternoon, 2 June 2006. This is the 149th anniversary of the birth of Elgar: 2 June 1857, so perhaps an occasion to contemplate so many things concerning him, his music and other inter-connected aspects of the English tradition.

In the late 1980s we did not move in the same musical or social orbit, so the programme note from the Huddersfield Philharmonic will be new to you. At that time it had begun to fall to my lot to provide the notes for the concerts. This was something congenial since it gave me an opportunity to contemplate and re-consider my own attitudes towards all these musico-historical things. Hence this programme note.

It had always struck me that the period around 1910, or perhaps even the whole decade before had seen the beginning of a new outlook in Europe: that peculiar, feintly uncomfortable awareness of the psychoanalytical things being discovered by Freud, Jung and Adler in that hot-bed of intellectual ferment centred around Vienna.

One of the most significant figures of course, was Mahler, whose music seems - even now - the most cogent musical expression of those times and that place. But England was somewhat, complacently isolated from all this; after all it had the Royal Navy. Further north, the Scandinavians, not least Carl Nielsen in Denmark and even more so Sibelius in Finland, were similarly isolated from Vienna and the mid-European ways of looking at things, although Sibelius himself had been to Vienna and had even thought that somehow he might pursue a career as a violinist. For a time is said to have played - as a rank and file player - in the Vienna Philharmonic, but ultimately his path was to be a composer not a performer.

So how does all this compare with Elgar and the English tradition. Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford were still leading lights in the realms of English music, but Elgar was quickly overshadowing them both. The programme note comments on all this.

However, it is what all this early twentieth century musico-social history has meant to a later generation that is probably worth contemplating. It has certainly given me much to think about when comparing my own experiences: especially that awakening period of youth: 1939 - that anxious yet peculiarly ecstatic summer. More recently I have read again the novel by Mary Wesley "The Camomile Lawn" having earlier seen it as a television serial and read the book before. To me this novel in a most uncanny way has a parallel with my own holiday experience in Devon in those weeks before the war broke out. One very particular incident stands out, which was to be paralleled in a similar way some eleven years later, in 1950.

One throbbing, warm August evening, with the air so mild, filled with moths, other insects and that satisfying glow that comes at dusk after a perfect summer day, I chanced to be standing at a railway level crossing at Paignton on the line between Torquay and Kingswear. The evening train from Paddington came through at a fair speed, as the small crowd awaited at the level crossing barrier. We all looked up as the train steamed through with great noise and smoke; the lights of the carriages all aglow with holiday-makers newly on their way to Kingswear. The thought struck me: I wonder who all those people are? what kind of lives do they lead? There were some pretty girlish faces at the window, but all too soon they were gone in a flash and only the rear red light of the last carriage disappeared in the gathering darkness.

A day or two later I witnessed an astonishing sight in Torbay: a whole squadron of the Royal Navy: two battle-ships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates, probably thirty or more vessels slowly steaming up from the south-west. Everyone paused to look at this marvellous sight, children playing on the sands, old people in deck-chairs, couples walking on the promenade; we all stopped and gazed out to sea. It was marvellous, yet disquieting and alarming; for we knew all too well that the war was imminent, and that in a sense we were living an artificial life of care-free pleasure. Within a couple of weeks it came, and life took on a different complexion altogether.

Years later, the war having been over for five years or so, I stood on a similar railway platform one quiet, mild early September evening. This time it was at Millerís Dale in Derbyshire. There was ever such a feint drizzle, intermittent, and not unpleasant. I stood on this quiet railway platform that Sunday evening, waiting for the London-Manchester train. In the bay-platform was the local Buxton-Millerís Dale two-coach train with its tank engine quietly simmering as it waited until the main-line train had gone. I stood by the engine and enjoyed the pleasant warmth from its boiler; the rain just occasionally sizzling on the warm engine. The crew were local men, content just to wait, read the paper and occasionally open the fire-box door to shovel on a little more coal to keep up the steam pressure; a pleasant scene. I was struck by the similarity to that occasion at Paignton in 1939, especially as when the hurrying London-Manchester train came in there was the same experience of seeing the brightly-lit carriage windows, with the faces blurred by the rain-wetted glass.

Some time after this, I wrote a work for a choral society; "Trains in the Distance" and one of the poems I chose was by Alfred Noyes. This poem seemed to encapsulate all my own feelings about these earlier experiences, and yet to point to a parallel with what seemed to be expressed in Elgarís Second Symphony - most especially that awe-inspiring scherzo - which to me seemed the very musical expression of a vast, overwhelming train bearing down upon one. There is always a feeling of apprehension standing near level crossing gates - when a main-line express thunders through just a few feet away. So a variety of different, yet curiously connected experiences seem to have elucidated the Musical "meaning" of Elgarís symphony.

The programme note I wrote in 1988 tries to illuminate all that I have felt about the symphony and how it has - rather uncannily - seemed to have a parallel with my own musical feelings:-


"On a Railway Platform - Alfred Noyes

"A drizzle of drifting rain and a blurred white lamp overhead
That shines as my love will shine again in the world of the dead.
Round me the wet, black night and, afar in the limitless gloom,
Crimson and green, two blossoms of light, two stars of doom.
But the night of death is aflare with a torch of back-blown fire,
And the coal-black deeps of the quivering air rend for my soulís desire.
Leap, heart, for the pulse and the roar, and the lights of the streaming train.
That leaps with the heart of thy love once more out of the mist and the rain.
Out of the desolate years the thundering pageant flows:
But I see no more than a window of tears which her face has turned to a rose.

These lines by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958): "Leap, heart, for the pulse and the roar ..." seem to me to be an exact, verbal counterpart of the passage in the scherzo of Elgarís Second Symphony: 3rd bar after figure 121 (page 118 of the full score) at the huge, overwhelming climax of the movement.

Naturally, these are only subjective thoughts, others may see this passage quite differently, but this is how vivid it has always appeared to my mind

Arthur Butterworth


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