Some of our most distinguished
and prolific writers on Elgar appear
in recent years to have had the urge
to write ‘reflective’ books about the
composer with whom they have lived so
much of their lives. In 2004 Jerrold
Northrop Moore produced Child of
Dreams (Faber) and Michael Kennedy
the 238-page The Life of Elgar
(Cambridge). Both had that quality of
spontaneity that comes from so many
years of intimacy with the subject.
One of the first post-War
authors to write a book about Elgar
was Diana McVeagh. This was in 1955,
the same year as Percy Young’s Elgar
OM. The great Elgar revival was
still to come and, unlike her successors,
she had not had the advantage of actually
hearing a great number of Elgar’s works.
Recordings were scarce and live performances
of many of the works non-existent. The
change in climate of our appreciation
and knowledge of Elgar had not yet begun.
So in this case, rather than a slim
volume of reflection, another full-scale
book has emerged, bringing up to date
her original work, with the benefit
of a further half-century of hindsight
and a steady stream of articles, programme
notes, etc. As before, prominence is
given to the music itself.
The narrative is so
typical of its author. That it is authoritative
is beyond question, but what is so attractive,
with a subject that often tempts writers
and commentators into the realms of
discursive speculation, is that she
is so straightforward, pithy and to
the point, and in a style that suggests
a good grounding in the classics! It
is a pleasure to read, with the biographical
element relating directly to the music
and not just included for its own sake.
The arrangement is
chronological, with five chapters covering
‘The Making of an Enigma 1857-1899’,
‘To the Greater Glory of God 1899-1909’
(devoted to the period of the Variations,
Gerontius, The Apostles
and The Kingdom – the longest
chapter in the book), ‘The Symphonist
1907-1915’, ‘The Music of Wartime 1914-1920’
and ‘The Last Years 1920-1934’. Note
the overlapping dates: recognition that
these perceived ‘periods’ are not hermetically
sealed but in fact merge with one another
– one ends while another has already
A sixth chapter is
called ‘Coda’ – a summing up and assessment.
Reference is made to Elgar’s unfinished
and projected compositions, to the ambiguities
of his life and music which ‘must interest
anyone who loves his music, but ultimately
they are his affair, and unimportant’.
There is also a List of Works, Index
of Music and Index of Names.
Elgar the Music
Maker is dedicated to the memory
of Eric Blom who commissioned the 1955
book, when Miss McVeagh was a 20-year
old girl student, and Frank Howes, former
music critic of The Times, who
gave much encouragement, support and
friendship to her during the early part
of her career when she also wrote for
The Times, The Times Literary
Supplement and The Musical Times.
It is produced to the usual impeccable
standards by The Boydell Press, set
and printed in Perpetua by Antony Rowe
Limited. I welcome the decision to set
the size at B format paperback but in
a hard cover (and sewn, not glued).
I don’t imagine that many owners will
take it to a concert, which is the publisher’s
justification for this format, but I
am in favour of a return to the more
modest page-sizes of the past – many
books are unnecessarily large these
days, with excessive leading and much
too much white space on the page. Other
publishers please note!
Near the end of her
book Diana McVeagh writes that ‘Neither
Elgar’s life nor his music is simple.
In both there are many layers, contradictions
and ambiguities. He and his music grew
and changed. This is partly why each
generation can make fresh observations
about the music, perhaps turning previous
ideas topsy-turvy, perhaps just sharpening
previous perceptions’. This seems to
me to be an accurate indication of this
author’s experience in writing this
book fifty years after her first.