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Views And Reviews: “Das Land Ohne Musik?”

Paul Serotsky wrote this note to introduce a programme of English music given by the Vancouver Symphony.

For more of Paul’s sparkling words on great music please click on Views And Reviews in the menu on this page.

Walton (1902-1993) – Coronation March “Crown Imperial” (1937)
Walker (b. 1946) – - Piano Concerto “Fragments of Elgar” (1997, rev. 2002)
Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – English Folk-Song Suite (1923)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 (1907)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – Enigma Variations (1899)

“The Land without Music” was an anti-English polemic, penned in 1904 by Oskar Adolf Hermann Schmitz, who didn’t seem to have noticed that this was already no longer true. However, when the idea – that England was the only cultured country without its own music – was first mooted in 1866, it held rather more than a grain of truth. England, probably too busy with the Industrial Revolution and what-have-you, seemed to have tucked its indigenous “classical” music away in the cloisters.

Of course, some Englishmen – notably Parry, Stanford and Sullivan – were writing much fine music. Sullivan’s brilliant operetta music was uniquely “English”, but sadly it didn’t “travel” well. Otherwise, at best they imparted an English flavour to a menu already served, consumed and digested in mainland Europe. Musically, England was a backwater, producing plenty of also-rans but no front-runners.

An unlikely saviour was at hand, namely the self-same provinciality that had caused the “problem” in the first place! There was this young, talented musician who had been born, bred and educated entirely in the provinces. Consequently, he was steeped in England’s “concealed” musical culture and, having matured in relative isolation from the European mainstream, his musical language had “English” written right through it. Compared to his precedents, Elgar’s arrival on the international scene was explosive: with the Enigma Variations, the sun rose on the Land, and it could no longer be said that the Land was “without Music”.

The idea for the variations came from playing a guessing game with his wife, tweaking a theme to characterise his friends. Although he worked them out thoroughly, Elgar insisted that “personal allusions only concern my subjects and myself”. The “enigma”? Elgar teased the world: with his goes another, well-known theme – but which he never let on. Solutions abound, some subtle, some silly, but all irrelevant when the new voice of England beckons. Vital and volatile, fanciful and fiery, but above all it was pervaded by a profound and unprecedented spiritual nobility. It’s a sobering thought that here Elgar was just finishing cutting his milk teeth – the First Symphony was just around the corner!

Leaking into the popular pageantry of “Pomp and Circumstance”, Elgar’s trademark nobilmente enriched the counter-subjects to his orchestrally athletic main sections. Strange to relate, these marches were written simply as entertainment, unlike the two Coronation Marches with which Walton proved himself a worthy successor. These were, though, no mere imitations. Even the earlier Crown Imperial, written for George VI’s coronation, contains some juicy jazz inflections, and is capped by a climax fit for a full symphony.

Whilst Elgar was “ennobling”, Vaughan Williams was ripening in the meadows. Believing that composers should “express the whole life of the community”, he turned to the Sixteenth Century and to folk-song. This made him one of Elizabeth Lutyens’s detested “cow-pat composers” (she’s now better-known for that term than she is for her music. Enough said?). Originally for military band, the English Folk-Song Suite is an unassuming confection, of nine singularly sweet-smelling “cow-pats”, yet its Intermezzo breathes the same timeless air as the magnificent Fifth Symphony.

Now to the “Land with Music to Spare” – and controversy. Suppose a supremely-skilled sculptor reassembled shards of a shattered Michelangelo, correlated though extensions of his own invention. Should we condemn his work because it “isn’t Michelangelo” – or rejoice because it “is beautiful”? Recently, two Englishmen courted controversy, basing works on Elgar’s sketches. Whilst Anthony Payne “re-constituted” Elgar’s unfinished “Third Symphony”, Robert Walker emulated our hypothetical sculptor. Elgar’s efforts to write a piano concerto had resulted in sundry sketches, left languishing in the British Museum. Prompted by David Owen Norris, Walker investigated and found numerous gleaming jewels, undeserving of their musty fate.

Even augmented by other finds – including a recorded “improvisation” that’s apparently a middle movement draft – these fell well short of a concerto’s worth. Walker decided to sift out the red herrings, solve what he could of the incomplete jig-saw puzzle, and absorb it into a concerto of his own. Was this a rash decision? Like Payne, Walker faced the wrath of Elgar purists. Yet, why? Composers have done this since time immemorial, but does anyone get snotty-nosed about (say) Liszt’s operatic Réminiscences? Anyway, Walker also saw a unique opportunity to write “The Last (British) Romantic Piano Concerto” – and wanted to thumb his nose at those grumps who grumble, “They can’t write music like that any more” – because, by George, they can, you know!

What should you expect? Ah. You’ll hear the “new improved” version, with extensively-revised outer movements, whereas I know only the original! Nevertheless, prepare to be amazed, at vaulting climaxes deliquescing into idyllic interludes, and at abundant effervescent hyperactivity. There’s no slow movement; instead a whimsical waltz-intermezzo teeters teasingly betwixt parlour and music-hall. The work’s like a chocolate-chip cookie: the finest Elgarian chocolate embedded in mouth-watering Walker’s biscuit. The question is: where does the chocolate end and the biscuit begin?

© Paul Serotsky, 2005


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