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.
The twice-told tale unfolded here is by now very familiar in its outlines. For the first forty years of Elgar’s life, there was little to suggest that genius, greatness and Gerontius were to come. He was born poor, provincial and Catholic; he was a self-educated musician; and he eked out a meagre living by teaching the violin and by conducting a band at the local lunatic asylum. He married an older woman who was above his station, but it proved to be the making of him, for Alice Elgar never doubted her husband’s genius. But it took a long time to flower. Their first direct assault on London in 1889-91 was a humiliating failure, and most of Elgar’s compositions in the 1890s were indifferent cantatas and oratorios commissioned by local choral societies, tenth-rate words set to second-rate music. As Moore observes, if Elgar, like Schubert, had died in his early thirties, he would be forgotten today. If he had died at 35, like Mozart, he would be recalled in specialist books on English music as a minor figure. Of all the great composers, he was among the latest to develop, and he never ceased to resent this.
Then, in 1898, at the age of 41, he wrote the Enigma Variations, a heartfelt tribute to those friends who formed a cross-section of the local society in which he had lived and struggled, yet also, paradoxically, the vehicle by which he was able to escape provincial obscurity. The work’s success and popularity was immediate and abiding, and ushered in a period of golden creativity, as the late developer became a middle-aged prodigy. Nothing could stop him, not even the catastrophic first performance of Gerontius. Two overtures, two concertos, two symphonies, three oratorios and four Pomp and Circumstance Marches triumphantly vindicated Alice’s belief that she had married a genius. Unmusical as the English pride themselves on being, they loaded Elgar with honours and degrees; he was given a knighthood and the OM; he was swept up into the arms of the Establishment; even Edward VII recognised a good tune when he heard one. By 1911, Elgar was one of the most famous men in the land: the hoped-for glory had come.
But in 1920, Alice died, and Elgar the composer died with her. As the last verse of ‘The Music Makers’ had, inadvertently, predicted, he now became ‘a dreamer who slumbers and a singer who sings no more.’ For the rest of his life there was intermittent talk of another oratorio, of a grand opera, of a piano concerto, and of a third symphony: but nothing significant emerged. Honours continued to cascade: the Mastership of the King’s Musick, two more knighthoods and a baronetcy (although not the sought-after peerage). But now they were consolation for the loss of creative power, rather than recognition of its continued potency. In London, Elgar shuffled from club to club, but he resigned from the Athenaeum when Ramsay MacDonald was elected; and in the country he shuffled from house to house, accompanied by his devoted dogs and dogged devotees. He recorded his works for the gramophone, but at the concert halls the public stayed away in droves. They wanted Façade, not Falstaff, the Sea Symphony not Sea Pictures. For the last decade and a half of his life Elgar was living in an alien world: the ‘massive hope in the future’ which had inspired the first symphony had gone; he became convinced that his music was as worthless as his life; and he ended it, as he began it, in the provinces.
Although these contours of Elgar’s life have long been established, Moore’s meticulous research necessarily embroiders these familiar themes. There is the young Elgar, back from a successful performance of King Olaf, putting his head on his mother’s lap, and confiding that he was frightened at the prospect of fame. There is the truly awesome extent of Lady Elgar’s devotion, fervently thanking God whenever Edward wrote beautiful, wonderful, sublime, magnificent music – which in her eyes he invariably did. There is the dreadful deprivation inflicted on their daughter, Carice, constantly and firmly kept both down and out, so that she should not disturb The Genius at work. There is the contemptible treatment meted out by Novellos, his publishers, which reached its nadir when Elgar produced only two-thirds of his oratorio The Apostles, whereupon they initially proposed to pay him only two-thirds of the previously agreed sum. And there is the astonishing episode of the abortive third symphony, on which Elgar was working when fatally struck down by abdominal cancer. The BBC, who had commissioned the work, and were anxious to get results, wondered whether Elgar’s fading thoughts might be shifted from his stomach to his symphony by cutting his spinal cord, which would have had the effect of alleviating the pain – but Elgar’s doctors wouldn’t take up the proposal.
Some of the insights into the music are equally arresting. How, at the age of ten, Elgar scribbled down a tune at Broadheath in 12/8 time, which prefigured a number of mature themes, as in the Second Symphony. How Gerontius was written as a wager against his own insecure faith, and how, by allowing such a terrible first performance, the Almighty let him down. ‘I always said God was against art,’ he concluded, despairingly. How Jaeger pushed Elgar into accomplishing more and better music than he dared to believe he could, by insisting that he rewrite parts of Enigma and Gerontius. How Elgar shaped the mass of thematic material into the symphonies and the concertos. And how difficult life was for him, simultaneously working on two or three new compositions, conducting his music up and down the country, correcting proofs of new pieces, and arranging rehearsals and performances well in advance. It cannot always have been easy to be the dreamer of dreams when the world was so full of nightmare practicalities.
Yet, for all these occasional and illuminating touches, for all the well-intended labour that has gone into the making of these two books, Moore’s Elgar project is massively flawed, both in conception and execution. A Creative Life is grotesquely gargantuan, a scissors-and-paste monstrosity, suffocatingly obese yet structurally invertebrate. The treatment is inexorably chronological and inadequately analytical; there is far too much quotation from words and music; the proportioning of the chapters is wholly unsatisfactory; the prose rarely rises above the commonplace, and is often woolly and pretentious. The author has become so obsessed with his subject that he has lost all sense of proportion or audience. As he rightly points out in the preface to Spirit of England, ‘it is not necessary to recall every small detail.’ Yet in A Creative Life that is precisely what he does, describing Elgar’s life week by week, day by day, hour by hour. Spirit of England though very much shorter, is no better: the prose is curiously unsophisticated, and the thematic treatment repetitive.
Moore’s conception of Elgar’s creative life is as flawed as his exposition. All his life, Moore argues, Elgar’s creative mind fed on his past experience, in such a way that ‘each new adventure in theme and form could be understood as the spiritual biography of the whole man.’ What is more, it was in his music that Elgar reconciled the contradictions presented by his father’s humdrum musicality, as a tuner of pianos, and his mother’s poetic yearnings, as an unfulfilled visionary. So, for all these reasons, Elgar was always reaching back to his Broadheath boyhood. ‘I am still,’ he recalled in later life, ‘at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severnside, with a sheet of paper, trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great.’ Undeniably, this stress on remembrance and reconciliation helps to explain some of Elgar and some of his music. Indeed, the notion that his work expresses nostalgia recollected in creativity is something of a commonplace, while the powerful influence of the dominant, romantic mother/wife figure has long been recognised. But these insights do not explain everything and, in flogging them to a thousand-page death, Moore tells us rather less about Elgar than he might, and rather more about himself than he knows. At the end of Spirit of England, Moore emerges as a man disillusioned by the darkening experience of contemporary living, disenchanted by presentday cults of speed and success, preferring England to America, and Worcestershire to London. And, at the beginning of A Creative Life, he further tells us how his mother has constantly ‘shown me ways of drawing on the past to enrich the present’. There is more, presumably, to Moore than mummy and memory, and if not, there was certainly more to Elgar, as De-la-Noy’s much more plausible psychobiography demonstrates.
By so limiting his approach, Moore gets into many difficulties which a less narrow-minded treatment might have avoided. He eschews obvious explanations when they don’t fit his framework, as when he stresses that Elgar’s frequent recourse to youthful sketchbooks was evidence of his nostalgia: the usual reason was that he had to meet deadlines for new compositions, and so had no choice but to draw on old material. It also leads to some far-fetched speculations, as when Moore argues that Elgar never wrote a piano concerto because that instrument was the symbol of his father’s trade, and of his own lower middle-class origins which he was trying to throw off. Above all, Moore is far too uncritically reverential in his use of Elgar’s own recollections. For Elgar was not only a music-maker, but a myth-maker as well, whose words about himself were often as deceptive as his photographs. And one of the myths which he cultivated most assiduously was that of always being at heart the dreamy little boy on Severnside: a myth devastatingly dismissed by De-la-Noy as ‘a trite and scarcely believable fairy tale’, but elevated by Moore into the fundamental impulse of Elgar’s creative life.
By contrast whole areas of Elgar’s character, about which we now know a great deal, are left either unexamined or undiscussed. His obsession with being photographed, his occasional outbursts of bad temper, and the innumerable chips on his shoulder, go largely unexplored. The perennial anxiety over money, the interminable wanderings from one rented house to another, and the need for constant reassurance, are described, but little else. The astonishing contrast between the music, so often tender, passionate, decisive and exuberant, and Elgar himself, who was rarely if ever any of these things, is not looked into. Above all, for a book which is so obsessed with the idea of creativity, it is quite extraordinarily evasive about sex. The account of Elgar’s abortive engagement in 1883, and the analysis of his relationship with his wife, is distinctly thin, even prudish. And the platonic flirtations between Elgar and Dora Penny, Rosa Burley, Alice Wortley and Vera Hockman, perceptively analysed by De-la-Noy, get very short and stuffy shrift. Moore grandly dismisses such matters as ‘idle speculation’, reflecting ‘only the wishes of the speculator’. Perhaps so. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: quite why Moore, mother and nostalgia should have a monopoly of Elgarian speculation is not at all clear.
So, even as psychobiography, Moore’s approach to Elgar is too limited, too obsessively obsequious. But what is also missing is a broader vision, a capacity to stand back from Elgar’s tortured and self-indulgent psyche, so as to see his life and work in the wider historical and musical perspective from which so much of its significance derives, and without which no real picture or understanding is possible. For example, Moore suggests, quite correctly, that in some ways Elgar was a lower-middle-class provincial boy with commonplace social aspirations, but with very uncommonplace means of fulfilling them: as he made music, so music made him. True. But the implications of this go largely unexplored. By conquering the oratorio, the symphony and the concerto, Elgar also conquered the court, the country and the Establishment. Music was the means to fame and fortune, royalty and royalties, and having got them, the creative impulse all but dried up. On receiving the OM in 1911, he admitted that ‘there is now nothing left for me to achieve.’ And there was also precious little left for him to compose. In any analysis of Elgar’s career, it is important to remember that, in large part, fame was the name of the game.
Of course, like all social climbers, Elgar also suffered from vertigo and, Elgar being Elgar, there was enough in his case for several Hitchcock films. As with his Broadheath background, the gong-grabber is part of the explanation, but not the whole. And the same applies to the notion that he was the ‘spirit of England’. Undeniably, he appeared in one guise as the Tory Party at its trumpets and triangles. But he was also a composer of cosmopolitan background and European reputation, and Moore makes no real attempt to see or understand him as such. Elgar’s music owed much (but what, exactly?) to Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz, Dvořák and Wagner; many of his first and foremost English admirers had names like Jaeger, Richter, Schuster and Speyer; his work was widely performed in Italy, Russia and the United States; in Germany, Gerontius and the First Symphony were ecstatically received, and Richard Strauss was fulsome in his praise. It is cosy, comforting and partly correct to stress Elgar’s Englishness, to present him as a Cockaigne-like compound of Malvern water and Worcester sauce: but before 1914, in inspiration as much as in impact, he was also one of the giants of the international musical scene.
As such, Elgar was one of the last great figures of the Romantic movement, and that consideration, too, needs greater attention than Moore gives it, not only in understanding Elgar’s creative phase, but also in explaining the onset of his musical menopause. For him, as for Dukas, Sibelius, Ives and Rachmaninov, the First World War crushed the capacity to compose. In each case, there were plausible personal reasons: but such a widespread phenomenon suggests that deeper movements were at work. For Elgar, 1914 ushered in twenty baffling, bitter and bewildering years. The end came in 1934 – the same year that Holst and Delius died. In his last illness, Elgar lay in bed with a gramophone by his side, playing his own music, which serenaded him into the next world at 78 rpm. As with the Gerontius picture, this final photocall was carefully arranged. Once again, Elgar took no chances: the pose was struck, the camera clicked, and the image was preserved. But which? Was it Colonel Blimp in sight of some celestial Eastbourne? Or the visionary and dreamer on the edge of eternity? Or the tradesman’s son on the brink of a Pooterish Paradise? It is still difficult to be sure. The real enigma is not the Variations: it remains Elgar himself.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.