Severnside

David Cannadine

  • Elgar, the Man by Michael De-la-Noy
    Allen Lane/Viking, 340 pp, £12.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1532 3
  • Edward Elgar: A Creative Life by Jerrold Northrop Moore
    Oxford, 841 pp, £35.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 315447 1
  • Spirit of England: Edward Elgar in his World by Jerrold Northrop Moore
    Heinemann, 175 pp, £10.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 434 47541 6
  • The Elgar-Atkins Friendship by E. Wulstan Atkins
    David and Charles, 510 pp, £15.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 7153 8583 6

There is a famous photograph of Elgar taken at the moment he completed the orchestral scoring of The Dream of Gerontius. He wears a buttoned-up jacket and a wing collar, and sports a walrus moustache of formidable proportions. In dress and demeanour, he looks stiff, starched and stuffed: Colonel Blimp before his time. And yet the eyes suggest a very different personality: dreamy, passionate, visionary, a man of poetic imagination with his sights set surely on the sublime. Which of these is the real Elgar? It is difficult to be sure. For the picture is not only contradictory, it is also deceptive: a carefully contrived self-image masquerading as a spontaneous and unself-conscious record. The pensive pose, with the left hand on the cheek, and the gaze wistfully directed towards some distant horizon, was deliberately struck by Elgar while a lunchtime visitor went out to get his camera so as to record the moment for posterity. The resulting photograph was Elgar as he wanted to be seen, yet giving away more than he knew: the tradesman’s son trying too hard to conceal the fact.

Throughout his life, and even more so since his death, Elgar has presented a bewildering variety of images to his photographers and his public, his friends and his biographers. His temperament was quite extraordinarily complex, cross-grained and contradictory; his delight in what Ernest Newman called ‘public mysterification’ was as revealing as it was perverse; and his creative output has meant very different things to different people of different generations. The result is a personality easily evoked in part, but rarely encapsulated in full. From his friendship with Ivor Atkins, Elgar frequently emerges as a cheerful, chuckling countryman: but in his letters to A. J. Jaeger, he often appears as an agonised and anguished artist. To Dora Penny, he was a happy-go-lucky and affectionate family man: yet to Rosa Burley he seemed extremely difficult and often profoundly unhappy. In his heyday, before 1914, he was acclaimed as Britain’s unofficial musical laureate, the nation’s greatest composer since Purcell; between the wars, he was derided as the pompous quintessence of self-satisfied Edwardian circumstance; and now, in our post-imperial, nostalgia-crazed times, he has re-emerged triumphantly, to provide the backing to all sorts of soap operas, from the royal wedding to The Jewel in the Crown.

Not surprisingly, each of Elgar’s major biographers has chosen to stress a different aspect of this varied enigma. Diana McVeagh kept the life and the works rigidly separate, argued that the man was less important than the music, gave a reticent and discreet account of his private life, and admitted that much of his output probably was as vulgar as his inter-war critics had claimed. Percy Young believed that the man and his music were inseparable, and presented Elgar as a ‘two-worldly character’, torn between the private poet of Worcestershire (who wrote great music), and the public poseur of London (who did not). In what remains the best and most moving book on Elgar yet written, Michael Kennedy provided the first psychologically-plausible portrait, of an anguished and lonely man who became a music-maker, a seer of visions and a dreamer of dreams. And more recently, Michael De-la-Noy has depicted Elgar in yet darker colours, as a neurotic, depressed, contorted, desperately unhappy man, who conquered the world but never learned to love it, and who found happiness only in the ephemeral euphoria of composition.

Of all the many Elgars the most monumental has been that of Jerrold Northrop Moore. Ever since he left America more than twenty-five years ago, Moore has been working singlemindedly at this subject; he has given innumerable lectures and broadcasts; he is joint editor of the Elgar Complete Edition and a Trustee of the Elgar Birthplace at Broadheath; he has already published books about Elgar on record and Elgar in pictures. Now he has produced his magnum opus, A Creative Life, together with a shorter study, Spirit of England. Although he pays handsome tribute to Elgar’s previous biographers, these two books are emphatically the fruits of his own immense labours. He has read everything that has been published on the subject; he has talked to everyone remotely connected with Elgar, including his daughter Carice, who did not die until 1970; and he has made unprecedentedly full use of the rich Elgar archives at Broadheath and in the Worcester and Hereford Record Office. In weight and work, these books together dwarf all previous Elgariana.

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