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ELGAR: AN ANNIVERSARY PORTRAIT

introduced by Nicholas Kenyon

Continuum, 2007

199pp

ISBN 9780826496966

£16.99 (hardback)

 


 

This is an exceptionally interesting book, published to mark the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth – to which a great deal more attention has been paid than to the centenary in 1957; a telling reflection of the change of climate in the appreciation and understanding of this composer.

The book comprises fifteen chapters dealing, as the jacket states, ‘with Elgar the man and composer, as well as with issues connected to Elgar’s lasting legacy and to the performance of his music’. These are conveniently subdivided into sections looking at ‘Elgar the Man’ (four chapters); ‘Elgar the Composer’ (five); ‘Performing Elgar’ (five); and ‘The Legacy’ (one). The authors are ‘scholars and musicians that understand him best’, but avoiding ‘the usual suspects’ in favour of many with a thoroughly practical understanding of ‘the Elgar experience’.

To begin the book with an essay by the historian David Cannadine – Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, author of The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and of the forthcoming nineteenth century volume of the New Penguin History of Britain – puts the subject firmly in the mainstream and away from the parish pump. This is the longest chapter in the book and perhaps the most important, for it looks at Elgar less as a musician than as an historical personality, how he regarded society and how society regarded him, given his humble background and the lifelong neuroses this entailed. The endnotes are quite as fascinating as the main text!

In similar scholarly vein Julian Rushton traces the development of Elgar biography, from the reverential approaches appropriate to a living composer to the present-day need ‘finally to come to grips with the music itself and its significance’. One of the writers he mentions, Diana McVeagh – author of one of the first post-War books about Elgar (published in the same year as Percy Young’s Elgar OM) – delightfully recounts how her book came to be written: the result of the intended author William McNaught’s affliction with inoperable cancer. But few would agree with her view that in choosing her, a 20-year-old girl student, ‘poor [Eric] Blom was scraping the bottom of the barrel’. One might say that he showed astonishing percipience!

Finally in this first section, the pianist Stephen Hough, writes about ‘Elgar the Catholic’, beginning with a vivid personal recollection of discovering The Dream of Gerontius as a boy, and ending with the thought that ‘Elgar might have been more at home living now than he was in his own times’. This chapter is a considerable tour-de-force from this multi-talented musician – not only a superb pianist, but also the composer of a new cello concerto, whose premiere he conducted – and author of a book, The Bible as Prayer, and a regular reviewer for the Catholic Herald.

The rest of Elgar: an anniversary portrait comprises pieces by Robert Anderson, Christopher Kent, Hans Keller, Adrian Partington and Anthony Payne on various aspects of ‘Elgar the Composer’; Mark Elder (interviewed by Richard Morrison), Janet Baker, Yehudi Menuhin, Tasmin Little and Andrew Keener on ‘Performing Elgar’; and finally, an exceptionally interesting piece by Michael Messenger on the Elgar Foundation and the Birthplace Museum, illustrating ‘The Legacy’. A most enjoyable book.

It is, therefore with regret that I end my review in a state of irritability at the sloppy editing of this volume. Indeed, who is the editor (if there is one)? Nicholas Kenyon writes an Introduction, but makes no claims to be the editor, nor is anyone else named as such. Who selected and commissioned the individual pieces (not that I’m complaining of the choice!)? Who put the book together and proofread it? Who considered whether any additional explanatory material would be helpful?

Actually, the book, qua book, is very nicely designed, set and printed, but there are a fair number of typos, at least two widows (pp 119 and 149) – and a howler as early as the second page of Kenyon’s Introduction where the author of ‘Dover Beach’ appears as Malcolm Arnold rather than Matthew! Furthermore, I, and no doubt most people reading this, may know who the distinguished authors are, but this book will be read by a much wider community who would benefit from the list of contributors with brief biographies that is customary in compilations of this kind.

Finally, it is rather misleading to claim that this is a ‘collection of new essays’, when it includes Hans Keller’s piece ‘Elgar the Progressive’ (first published in The Music Review, 18, 1957, then in Essays on Music, Cambridge, 1994) and Yehudi Menuhin’s ‘Sir Edward Elgar: My Musical Grandfather’ (first given as a talk to the London Branch of the Elgar Society in January 1976 and subsequently printed by the Society). This is not noted, so that uninformed readers may wonder at references to ‘thirty years ago’, or ‘recently’ in some of these narratives and fail to realize that this is not from a present-day viewpoint.

It is a pity that these avoidable irritations detract from an otherwise very welcome and stimulating addition to the Elgar bibliography.

Garry Humphreys

 

www.garryhumphreys.com


 


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