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The statement that Elgar's 'later achievement became more celebrity and image than the creator of music for 20th century England' seems more to do with the 'celebrity and image' foisted upon him by certain members of the British public who chose to prefer their own view of Elgar and his work to the reality; it would surely have sat most uneasily on Elgar's music desk along with the scores of the Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto. It is well known that Elgar himself was the very opposite of the 'quintessential Englishman' (why in any case does 'Englishness' have always to be described as 'quintessential'?!); born into a lower middle class family, a Roman Catholic rather than a member of the established Church of England, a musician, a late starter and a man forever beset by bouts of depression and a lack of self-confidence worthy of Rakhmaninov, he was hardly a credible representative of the kind of bullish gung-ho superiority that went with the territory of 'Edwardian dignity, old world tradition and nobility, Empire and Monarchy'. It is surely no wonder, therefore, that his music for the most part sounded less obviously 'English' than that of some of the other composers Mr Standford lists (not that those composers represent those values either, of course).
Edward Elgar in 1901
That said, it may also be worth remembering that Elgar, when accused of overlooking the importance of English folk music in his work, retorted that he wrote folk music, because he was one of the folk and wrote music; whilst that was clearly a different attitude to 'folk music' than was to be found in certain later English composers, it is nevertheless worthy of serious consideration in that, by implication, at least, it drew attention to the notion that 'folk music' has its origins in the work of individuals rather than of nations. For a discourse on nationalism in music, Mr Standford and others might do well to read the essay (originally drawn from a lecture) entitled National character an essential ingredient in musical art today from In my eighth decade and other essays by an English composer born at the very beginning of the last century, Alan Bush; even allowing for the fact that Mr Bush's political beliefs were not entirely representative of those English 'values' that Mr Standford mentions, its conclusions are probably not quite what anyone seeking some kind of quaintly 'quintessential' Englishry might expect ...
Copyright © 5 August 2007
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK