One of the most interesting things about the feedback I receive as these postings hurtle around the world is that I get the warmest responses from strangers — and especially strangers who are classical newbies — when I talk a little about how I first encountered a work or composer that I came to love.
It’s an approach I’m going to take again now — as I highlight the fact that today, 2 June, is yet another of the musical anniversaries that I like to mark (and our corporate state and state-corporate media like to ignore…).
Today’s anniversary is actually a birthday: that of Edward Elgar (1857-1934) — a man who could quite reasonably be described as ‘undoubtedly one of the two or three greatest composers England has ever produced’, were it not for the fact that England itself showed precious little interest in producing him: as the son of a mere provincial tradesman (his father owned a local music shop) and a member of Victorian England’s marginalised Roman Catholic minority, his situation — particularly during his first forty years — had about it more than a little of the disadvantaged outsider.
As for my teenage discovery of Elgar, there is a sense in which he had ‘always been there’ — in the form of those ‘patriotic’ pieces that get played and used all over the place. What really opened my eyes about his music was the First Symphony (first performed in 1908) — which I discovered using my ‘usual method’: the random borrowing of a tape cassette from one of my local libraries. Needless (perhaps) to say, I wasn’t quite ready for such a big piece all at once — the thing takes around 50 minutes to get through (and by the time a performance finishes, more than a few players in the orchestra will be practically weeping with exhaustion) — but, even on that first hearing, there were moments that changed my world forever.
And right from the start, too: to this day, Elgar’s First remains the only piece of music I’ve ever heard that had me hooked within 15 seconds, shedding tears in 50, and choking with emotion before the two-minute mark… So here is a clip of the first three minutes — if you think you can handle them…
Obviously, Elgar isn’t going to waste a tune as marvellous as that — it has to play some kind of important role in the later course of the work! — but what is he going to do with it? Well, by the end of the first movement I was really ‘all at sea’ in my initial hearing; but I do remember reacting to a couple of the things he did with that tune, not long before the movement finishes…
Hearing the colourful clarity in the use of so many instruments (it’s a pretty large orchestra he calls for — including two harps!), it’s natural to wonder who it was who taught Elgar orchestration; who he studied composition with; and maybe even which university he went to. And there will be people surprised to hear that Elgar didn’t study orchestration with anyone; never had a composition lesson in his life; and didn’t go to university. Yes, he learned everything through personal study and practical music-making, out in Worcestershire (that’s three syllables, foreign readers!).
Which brings me to the movement I preferred above all the others back on that day in 1981 (or thereabouts: I can’t be quite sure at this distance). Here’s the entire second movement (it’s not all that long). Now, has there ever been a British composer — self-taught or otherwise! — who could fling an orchestra around with more assurance…?!?
As regular readers will know, I’m actually a sworn enemy of the ‘Rosebud was a sled he had as a young boy’ school of preparatory commentary: as far as I’m concerned, people should go into a work with the minimum of explanatory or advance
baggage knowledge, and simply see what it is that happens to them as the work itself hits them. But on this occasion I want to risk ‘spoiling the ending’ — because I’m going to include a clip of something that completely floored me when I first heard it (and has gone on doing so ever since). There’s a condition attached, however: since I don’t want to perpetrate a ‘spoiler’, any reader who doesn’t already know this symphony is only allowed to listen to the next clip if he or she has already resolved — for whatever feeble reason! — never to give the whole symphony a try: since such a person is never going to hear the whole thing, they might as well hear an ending that they’ll never forget.
This, then, is how the work finishes. If you don’t want to know the result, look away now…
Incidentally, if you think those four clips contained an awful lot of footage that showed the conductor, I’d have to agree — and provide a little explanation: the most usual reason for the vision mixer cutting to the conductor is that it’s a moment where there seems to be no way of showing something in the orchestra without running the risk of being ineffective or misleading — a hint there, I think, of how contrast-rich and mobile Elgar’s orchestration is: it’s hard for cameras to follow it without drawing attention to themselves and their cutting.
Of course, another reason for a conductor being shown so often might easily be that he handed the vision mixer an envelope full of twenty pound notes before the mixing was planned. Which, as it happens, brings us to the issue (and un-issue) of the second ‘Series E’ design of the Bank of England’s twenty pound note…
You see, Elgar’s aquiline features graced the reverse of the £20 note that was first issued in 1999 (the building to his right is, of course, Worcester Cathedral):
It couldn’t last. A tiny but welcome indication that the British state remembered — and the British public could still be gently reminded about — some variety of music that isn’t made by lads with guitars and girls hanging on to microphones, this splendid design lasted all of eight years before being replaced. Or, to put it another way, 2007 was simultaneously the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the year his image was taken off the £20 note…
Mention of the British state, of course, raises another issue with which Elgar is inevitably connected: the issue of British imperialism and the way so many people consider him to be its musical mouthpiece. We can come back and talk about this later, if anyone has any thoughts or questions; all I want to do at this point is give people the chance to hear a piece that, some time before May 1982, blew me away just before I had to leave the house and go to school: I remember getting on the bus with my head full of the wild brass trills and magnificent, elephant-like swaying of a march that can’t straightforwardly be marched to because it’s three-in-a-bar — and then spending the rest of the day dying to get home so I could hear it again. Yes, I know perfectly well that Britain’s colonial involvement in India involved 200 shameful years of organised banditry and a succession of increasingly inventive famine-creation strategies; but to be completely honest, all I can focus on when this piece is playing is what happens in the music…
Time is running out (I have to throw these things together ‘against the clock’, as I have occasionally indicated); but let me quickly do three things.
First, here is a small clip from Ken Russell’s famous 1962 ‘Monitor’ film about the composer. I’ve chosen this tiny clip because the role of Elgar’s wife, Alice, is acknowledged here with a generosity that one doesn’t often see in documentary discussions of composers, even today. (The clip comes from the part of the story where the couple have left London and moved back to Worcestershire — the 35-year-old Edward having tried and failed to make his mark in the capital…)
Secondly, in 2002 Ken Russell actually returned to the topic of Elgar in a film for the Southbank Show. Since this item has now showed up on YouTube — and since no-one I’ve ever asked about it had any idea that it was even made! — here is the whole thing…
(In case anyone doesn’t know: The Southbank Show was a long-running Sunday-night series that presented films about cultural and entertainment figures [complete list of shows here] that was made by ITV — not the BBC! — between 1978 and 2010. In that year — as part of the general ‘cultural cleansing’ of TV output across all our supposed ‘public service’ channels — the show was terminated. In May 2012, however, it was re-launched — on Sky Arts: a purely commercial service which has no ‘public service broadcaster’ status at all. Go figure.)
Thirdly, here is some of Elgar’s late music. Give it a try, if you want to. If you like it, stick with it — and if you don’t, don’t.
I’m serious about that last bit. No music is ‘compulsory’, least of all the music of a genius.
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