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That said, what is McGuire's achievement? He puts oratorio and the singers neatly in their place by quoting the Leeds News: 'We have much greater faith in the efficiency of hard, honest toil in a ditch for producing those qualities which adorn the citizen, and prepare the pilgrim for another world, than we have in music'. It is a pleasure to know that the evangelical Rev John Newton, rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the Square Mile, preached fifty sermons in 1784-5 on words set in Messiah in order to excoriate the oratorio (maybe we need also to remember he aided Wilberforce in his campaign against slavery). McGuire spends much time defining what is an oratorio, coming to the tidy conclusion that Elgar wrote four.

Elgar's Oratorios - The Creation of an Epic Narrative. Charles Edward McGuire. © 2002 Ashgate Publishing
Elgar's Oratorios - The Creation of an Epic Narrative. Charles Edward McGuire. © 2002 Ashgate Publishing

Let it be said at once it is a refreshment to find a university scholar tackling the four works with the seriousness he does. Elgar would doubtless have decried the whole operation, but never mind. McGuire enquires carefully into how far Elgar followed Wagner's example in basic aim and detailed technique. It could be assumed that audiences knew the biblical background in a way Wagnerians might not know Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach or indeed the Nibelungenlied. A closer parallel might be Greek tragic drama, where theatregoers knew the essential plots from childhood and there was also a strong religious content. If Elgar set out, like Milton, to 'justify the ways of God to men', by the end of The Kingdom he seems to have been sure he had not done so. Yet McGuire is justified not to consider The Apostles and Kingdom failures. If I happen to reckon the latter far higher than The Apostles, this is mainly because the sweep of the music is more consistently compelling, and its essential subject is the power of inspiration within a shared community. In non-theological but typically Elgarian terms, it demonstrates the vital importance of the artist to society. In this Elgar does indeed approach Wagner, who could concentrate a mass of material towards the revelation of an equally simple message.

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Copyright © 29 December 2002 Robert Anderson, London, UK


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