31 Aug 2005

The Cambridge Companion to Elgar

Perhaps some Opera Today readers may wonder why a book on Sir Edward Elgar merits reviewing on this particular site. The composer never came near to completing an opera. In fact, only toward the end of his career did he...

Perhaps some Opera Today readers may wonder why a book on Sir Edward Elgar merits reviewing on this particular site. The composer never came near to completing an opera. In fact, only toward the end of his career did he seriously contemplate composing one. A suite from the incomplete A Spanish Lady sometimes gets an airing on classical music radio stations: light, tuneful, but hardly dramatic music.

It would be nice to report that the full story of that endeavor appears in The Cambridge Companion to Elgar, a collection of essays by esteemed musical scholars on various topics related to the great man’s life and music. Unfortunately, the text of over 220 pages only contains three brief passing references to A Spanish Lady. That in itself serves as ample evidence of the inconsequentiality of opera as a form for Elgar’s own efforts. However, opera did have a great impact on him as inspiration.

Religious-themed oratorios were the height of both esteem and popularity for British composers as Elgar came to maturity, vocal spectaculars in some ways not unlike the wide-screen Biblical cinematic extravaganzas of the 1950s. Elgar began to make his name with such pieces as The Apostles and especially The Dream of Gerontius. The greater complexity of mood and psychology of Elgar’s music (at least as compared to the work of near- contemporaries such as Parry or Stanford) probably owes not a little to Wagner, as Bryon Adams argues in his essay. Elgar made the requisite Bayreuth pilgrimage, and more than once, with Parsifal becoming a particular passion. Adams’s essay delves into psycho-sexual territory that may alarm some readers; the intimations of homoerotic content in Gerontius certainly took your reviewer aback. Nonetheless, the seriousness of the essay and its analysis shouldn’t be doubted.

Other vocal music of Elgar gets coverage in Robin Holloway’s “The early choral works.” The British love for choral singing gave Elgar a rich field to explore, although not much of that work is well-known. In fact, today too few may know of Land of Hope and Glory, the vocal version of Elgar’s “greatest hit,” if one will, the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. The Companion, therefore, does a great service in making clear that vocal music played a large role in Elgar’s musical life, even if opera never quite did.

Of course, purchasers of Jacqueline du Pre’s classic recording of the cello concerto have probably also encountered its CD disc-mate, Janet Baker’s performance of Sea Pictures. Sadly, the Companion has no in depth discussion of that piece. In the context of an anthology of essays, only the largest pieces – the symphonies, for example – receive ample analysis. However, Holloway’s essay does Elgar a major service by spending time on The Black Knight, a wonderfully melodic and dramatic work which deserves to be heard more often. With its dark, melodramatic story, The Black Knight might be the best glimpse into what an Elgar opera might have been like.

Some readers may find the analysis in some essays, such as Julian Rushton’s, hard to follow, with its reliance on musical examples in score form. Most of the essays, however, are written in a way that balances insight and intelligence with communication, making the book a somewhat dense but always fascinating read.

Perhaps the two most illuminating essays come near the end. Timothy Day’s “Elgar and recording” almost serves as a brief biographical note, at least of the composer’s later years, as Elgar delighted in the consumer end of the fledging recording business – the gramophone players and discs – and found some frustration in the recording studio. Similarly, Jenny Doctor’s “Broadcasting’s ally: Elgar and the BBC” offers many fascinating anecdotes both about the composer and the early years of that venerable institution.

Elgar’s reputation has waxed and waned, and no doubt the man would want more than to be remembered as the composer of a march appropriated for countless graduation ceremonies. The Cambridge Companion to Elgar offers ample evidence that there is simply too much richness in Elgar’s output for his reputation ever to be threatened with extinction. For those limited to a love of opera, then, the book may not offer much, but for all other serious music lovers, this is an engaging and fascinating volume.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy