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The Boydell Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-84383-295-9
£16.99 (hardback).


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 begun.

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.

Garry Humphreys


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