I am normally something of a 'completist' when it comes to music.
And that includes works that may not necessarily reflect a composer
at his or her best. If Bloggs wrote 101 songs then, if at all
possible there should be at least one fair recording made of each
– if for no other reason than to provide context. The best can
then be compared to the not so good and can be seen to shine.
Ivor Gurney may be an exception to this rule: there is much debate
about his ‘unplayable and un-publishable’ songs and chamber works
yet many folk want to give these an airing - even if it means
damaging the composer’s reputation. Imagine a neophyte finds a
CD of Bloggs’s Unknown Songs
. Further, imagine that they
are not very good. Could this put our friend off not only Bloggs
but also English lieder? Perhaps they would be best left un-played
and unrecorded? Other issues arise, such as the composer’s intentions.
Did they regard these pieces as worthy? Or did they suppress them?
This argument has surfaced with the repristination of the early
music - which had been believed destroyed - by William Alwyn and
suppressed works by RVW. I hasten to add that I am grateful for
these CDs and have especially enjoyed hearing the former’s tone-poem
and the latter’s Heroic Elegy
Let us turn to The Crown of India
. Most Elgar enthusiasts
will know the Suite derived from this ‘Imperial Masque’. It has
been issued in a number of recordings over the years, including
a fine version from Chandos with the Scottish National Orchestra
conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson. The March of the Moguls
has also been a popular extract. However, up until this present
CD, it has not been possible to hear the complete work in its
original format. The question is: is this a worthwhile project?
Firstly let’s dispose of the anti-Imperial argument. There are
two (at least) approaches to history. One is, I guess relative
and the other is absolute. Some people will refuse to give any
credence to an historical personage if they were involved in any
activity that is now regarded as politically incorrect, even if
it was not always regarded in this light. Men like Cecil Rhodes
and Clive of India are despised or at best belittled by ‘liberal’
society. Yet, surely it should be possible to admire the achievement
of a woman or a man who did much good work with their involvement
in world affairs. Obviously parts of their careers can be justly
criticised, but the person themselves cannot be separated from
their milieu. Few people in the world are truly forward-thinking:
most of us, both living and dead are and were children of our
I can hear people condemning this present work as jingoistic -
as imperial nonsense. It is a work that sets the British Empire
up against the people of India. As such it could be argued that
it should be consigned to the dustbin of musical history. We no
longer think in terms of Britain Ruling the Waves
at The Last Night
) nor do we necessarily regard the British
way of life as being something that must be imposed on other cultures.
Things, perhaps, work the other way round these days. So can we
justify listening to and perhaps even enjoying this Masque? Only
if we can enter the historical setting in our mind’s ear without
too many feelings of guilt! However, we ought to judge this work
- or any work - on its musical and literary merits rather than
its political and cultural resonances down through the years.
The Crown of India
is a masque that was written and performed
in 1912 to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary
to Delhi. This was part of a ‘durbar’ in that city as part of
the celebrations for their coronation as the Emperor and Empress
of India. The masque was commissioned by a certain Oswald Stoll
and combined a libretto by Henry Hamilton and the music of Edward
Elgar. The work was given its first performance at the Coliseum
Theatre in London on 11 March 1912. The masque ran for two performances
a day for two weeks. At that time the Coliseum was a variety theatre
rather than the opera house we know today. Ironically, Diana McVeagh
points out that Elgar’s music was performed alongside a programme
that included “gymnastic equilibrists, a ventriloquist, a Russian
harpist, a scene from Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look
mimes, with the Tannhauser
Overture as interval music.”
It must have been quite an evening!
The work was conceived in two tableaux, separated by an interlude:
it is made up of a dozen pieces or scenes. The first tableau is
entitled ‘The Cities of India’ and the second ‘Ave Imperator’.
The format called for the personification of ‘India’ and the cities
of Agra, Delhi, Calcutta and Benares and also England (not the
United Kingdom) by St. George. The chorus consisted of a cast
of thousands including Mogul Emperors, Princes, Guards, Executioners,
Courtiers, Fan-Bearers, Ladies Attendant Syce (grooms), Litter
Bearers, Heralds, and Trumpeters. The work is scored for contralto,
bass, chorus and orchestra. However it was not conceived for a
symphony orchestra as such but a typical theatre ‘pit’ band of
the era although it was considerably ‘augmented’.
It will be helpful to note the tableaux in a slightly simplified
1(a) - Introduction, and (b) Sacred Measure
2 - Dance of the Nautch Girls
2(a) – India greets her cities
3 - Hail, Immemorial Ind! (The Homage of Ind)
4 - March of the Mogul Emperors
5 - Entrance of John Company
6 - Rule of England (St. George’s Song)
7 - Interlude
8 - Warriors' Dance
9 - Cities of India
10 - Crown of India March
11 - Crowning of Delhi
12 - Ave Imperator
In the first tableau the cities of Calcutta and Delhi, personified
by the two speakers, plead to be made India’s capital city. In
the second, the Emperor rather diplomatically resolves the contention.
He states that “… Delhi to be his capital names, And of his Empire,
further makes decree, Calcutta shall the premier city be”.
Percy Young has noted that in the early months of 1912 Elgar had
moved into Severn House and was conscious “not only of its nobility
but also its expense.” So it is fair to say that the commission
came at the right time and contributed to the finances.
It is important not to be too critical about the text of the masque.
It is easy to write off Henry Hamilton’s libretto as ‘doggerel’
but it was very much a period piece: it is what would have been
expected at the time. However, the composer was not overly impressed
with the political tone of the words but was able to see the possibilities
it presented for producing a colourful score. Elgar was able to
cut a number of the worst parts of the text and began composing
the music and falling back on mining some earlier works and sketches
as he did so. Music rescued from The Sanguine Fan
and the Apostles
has been identified.
So what are we to make, musically at least, of this massive period
piece? Percy Young in his 1955 study of the composer has captured
its mood. He writes that “despite the skilful spread of motive,
there is no genuine consistency in The Crown of India
but vivid flashes of imaginative treatment, combined with instances
of tenderness and charm.” It is a judgement that holds well today.
The make-weights on the second CD are useful additions to the
catalogue of Elgar’s imperial, or less pejoratively, his ceremonial
music. The Imperial March
Op.32 was composed in 1896-7
and was the composer’s first essay in this genre. It was commissioned
by Novellos to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.
At the same time Elgar also received a commission to write The
Banner of St George
. The Imperial March
first performance at a Crystal Place concert on 19 April of the
same year. Interestingly, this piece is more in the style of what
Eric Coates was to compose some quarter of a century later. There
is no great pretence at writing profound music – instead it has
a tune that has “a spring in its step, and a sunny dance-like
trio”. Elgar was not the first to compose this kind of March.
Parry had written a fine example in his incidental music for Hypatia
It was however his first essay in what was to become a long line
of ceremonial marches. Diana McVeagh notes that it was the Imperial
that “first carried his name throughout the land”.
The Coronation March
Op. 65 is a totally different piece.
Gone is the light-heartedness of the earlier piece, to be replaced
by music that has a depth of emotion and variety of mood that
is rare in a work of its genre. The March was a ‘laureate’ work
commissioned for the Coronation of King George V in 1911. It has
been well said that the composer is mourning the death of the
old King rather than cheering the accession of the new. In many
ways it has the air of a funeral march rather than a rumbustious
paean of welcome for the monarch. I have no doubt that this is
one of the best marches that Elgar wrote – or anyone else for
that matter. One strange fact associated with this piece is the
fact the composer had already written the main opening theme for
a projected ballet based on the tales of Rabelais! It is assumed
that he abandoned this project because of Victorian prudery and
pressure from his wife Alice.
I have always had a soft spot for the Empire March
if it is not the best of the bunch. This work was composed in
1924 to inaugurate the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley
in that year. It is interesting, if somewhat poignant, that this
is one of the very few works to be completed after the death of
Alice in 1920. The Elgar Society webpage suggests that “it is
but a pale shadow of his earlier marches, lacking the distinctiveness
and decisiveness of melody which so characterised his more successful
marches …” Yet there is an interest in these pages and a certain
backward glance to happier times.
I am not quite sure why Chandos have chosen to give two versions
of The Crown of India
– one with the spoken text and one
without. I would have thought that a single version would have
sufficed for what is a very uneven work. However, if it had been
a single CD, there would have been no room for the three Marches.
Furthermore, I doubt if this work will receive many concert performances,
in spite of the fact that the Elgar Society have just published
the full score. I imagine that if it is
performed it will
be in the edited version.
All this being said, and I have not really made my mind up about
this piece yet, this CD is a must for all Elgar cognoscenti even
if they are, like me, not over-enthusiastic about the main event.
I enjoyed some
of this music. I certainly enjoyed the fine
performances by Sir Andrew Davis, the soloists and speakers and
the BBC Philharmonic. I appreciate the amount of work that Anthony
Payne has invested in this project to realise the score. But was
it worth it? I will probably not listen to this work again but
I will occasionally play The Crown of India Suite
However, it is important to know that a version of this legendary
work is available for pleasure, analysis and study. The amount
of effort that has been required to realise this masque may seem
to some a little excessive and perhaps misdirected.
Perhaps the project can best be summed up in two quotations from
the sleeve-notes. The first is from Nalini Ghuman: “(The Crown
is) a fascinating work of imperialism: historically
illuminating and often musically rich, it is nevertheless a profoundly
embarrassing piece - a significant contribution to the orientalised
India of the English imagination.” And the second is written by
Andrew Neill. He concludes his essay by suggesting that ‘although
Elgar’s subject is now out of fashion we can hear how, despite
its tendentious nature and poor quality, Elgar rises above Hamilton’s
text with colourful music of great variety … it may not be India,
but it is Elgar, who did this sort of thing better than anyone