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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Who says he's Elgar the Great?

By Norman Lebrecht / April 11, 2007

The 150th anniversary year of Edward Elgar’s birth lifts off tomorrow (Thurs, 12th) with a Philharmonia Orchestra cycle at the South Bank, spreading a sepia wave of national remembrance that will reach its climax in August at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, the heart of Elgarian middle England.

Abroad, an Elgar festival has been announced at Bard College in upstate New York and there will be performances across North America and Australasia. But the Elgar Society website reports very few concerts in mainland Europe or, for that matter, in Scotland – clear signs of recession for a national figure whose waxed moustache appeared, until last month, upon our daily £20 notes.

Its removal aroused an outcry in the shires, but not enough to break the Bank of England. Elgar’s interest rate is plainly falling. In a multicultural age, he represents a country we no longer recognise except by way of apology. His replacement on the currency, the Scottish economist Adam Smith, signifies a more inclusive, pluralistic, unselfconscious nationhood than Elgar’s antedeluvian Little Englishness.

Elgar’s importance, both artistically and nationally, is as an icebreaker: the first British composer in two centuries to win international acclaim. He was never, however, progressive. Three of his works are enduringly popular, yet even these masterpieces point resolutely backwards to a world that was gone long before Elgar set it to music.

The Enigma Variations of 1899 celebrates platonic friendship among the leisured classes. The violin concerto of 1910 idealises a lost love. Achingly, the cello concerto of 1919 mourns a world that rushed to self-destruction in August 1914. Its language is safely romantic, without fragmentation of line, tone or rhythm, without any of the jittery insecurities of the time in which it was written.

Elgar was a nostalgist by trade and, while he put Britain back on the musical map, his works marked an end-point not a creative renaissance. The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, an Elgar loyalist, argued against me on Radio 4’s Today programme last week that Elgar was, somehow, the equal of J. S. Bach, but that is more pomp than circumstance. Where Bach made a template that serves composers up to our own time, Elgar’s style was rejected by his immediate successors, who looked elsewhere for ideas – Holst to folk music, Vaughan Williams to Ravel, Britten to Mahler, Birtwistle to Stravinsky.

The greatest single influence on British music in Elgar’s time was an aloof Finn whose music defined nationhood without bombast, whose textures are inimitably original and who, with conventional tonality, evoked a stark, invigorating modernity.

Jean Sibelius, who died 50 years ago this year, wrote Finland’s national anthem before the nation existed and refined orchestral language to an ultimate severity. Vaughan Williams said of him, admiringly, that Sibelius could make the chord of C major sound stranger than ‘the maddest polytonalities of the maddest central Europeans.’ VW dedicated his fifth symphony to the Finnish master ‘with sincerest flattery’ and in a 1950 BBC broadcast prescribed the future of British music: ‘Let us then shun all pernicious and enervating drugs, and turn to the pure water of Sibelius.’

He was the most widely performed symphonist in British halls in the first half of the last century, his music championed impartially by the rival conductors Beecham, Sargent, Wood, Boult and Barbirolli. The first LP set of Sibelius symphonies was made in London. Sibelius was the very model for a modern British composer. William Walton’s publisher hailed his first symphony for being ‘like Sibelius’. Constant Lambert, in his polemic on modern music, called Sibelius ‘the only writer since Beethoven who has definitely advanced’ the symphony.

The younger set rebelled. Britten said of Sibelius’s sixth symphony ‘he must have been drunk when he wrote that’ (the Finn’s alcoholism was no secret) and the post-1945 generation turned to Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Nevertheless the Sibelius footprint is stamped more pervasively on British music than any other composer’s, Elgar included.

The two men never met. Elgar ducked a reception for Sibelius when they shared a concert bill at the 1912 Birmingham Festival, Elgar conducting The Music Makers – an overblown oratorio of imperialist doggerel – and Sibelius the UK premiere of his resolute fourth symphony. They looked in opposite directions, one backward, the other ahead, and the divergence persists in their legacy.

Finland today has the most vibrant musical culture in Europe and the greatest number of active composers, thanks to Sibelius. England’s debt to Elgar is measured mostly in mushy sentiment and shunned by autonomous parts of the British nation.

Privately, I love Elgar’s finest moments as much as the next Englishman, and some of his smaller ones as well – the E minor violin sonata, Sospiri for strings – but I believe we make ourselves look insular, parochial and unmusical by pretending against all evidence that Elgar was the English Bach, the fount of future glory.

To understand the development and depth of British music, it’s Sibelius we need to hear – and the calamity is that there is no Sibelius cycle on the cards (Proms perhaps excepted) until late October at the Barbican Centre.

This is Sibelius’s 50th anniversary year as much as it is Elgar’s 150th, but that date is being ignored in Little England – and for good reason. Played one against another, work for work, there would be no doubt left in neutral minds which of the two anniversary musicians was truly the great composer.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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