The music world on Elgar’s 150th

I’ve been rather saddened and even a little baffled in the lead up to the 150th anniversary of Edward Elgar’s birth to come across statement after statement to the effect that, even today, the jury is still out on Elgar’s significance as a composer.

With all due respect, it is not.

Unfashionable as it may be to say this, even if the most famous critic on earth were to say that Elgar’s music is not that good, or that he is not a “major” composer, that does not mean there is an argument to be had or a debate to be held. Even if you, dear reader, do not like Elgar’s music, even then, that does not mean there is anything for “the jury” to deliberate. Saying something loudly, or repetetively, or in a distingished publicaion does not make it true.

The fact is, the only measure of Elgar as a composer is not in critical opinion, or audience response. It is not to be found in the quality or number of recordings of his music. It cannot be assessed from concert performances.

Much as Elgar himself said that music was the highest art form, “written on the skies for you to note down,” the only true measure of Elgar’s value, achievement and importance as a composer is in his written scores.

There are precious few perks to being a composer, but there is this one- truth is truth, and if you write a great score, no comment, no performance, no fashion or debate can change that. You can be killed in Auschwitz, banned in your homeland, denounced before all your peers, publicly ridiculed or forgotten, and it matters not one bit. The true value of your music is in the scores you wrote down. Truth is truth.

Let me also add that Elgar may have been English, but his “Englishness” is completely irrelevant in assessing the quality of his music. Heritage, culture or race- forget them all. Elgar’s music is no more or less valuable for it’s “Englishness” than it would have been were it “imbued” with “Blackness,” ‘Jewishness,” “Germanness,” or “Kansasness.” Historically, although many good composers were German, not many Germans were good composers…

For those of you who choose not to live with those scores to discover the truths within, that is your privilege. Life is short, and we all make decisions about what passions to pursue. However, don’t be tempted to equate a blind spot with an insight, and do not delude yourself into thinking that your assessment of a piece has any value whatsoever, unless of course, it is your own piece you are assessing.

It is no coincidence that those of us who have spent more time with more of Elgar’s music have a higher respect for his work. The river flows that way always- from understanding to appreciation and not the other way around.

I could write pages about his mastery of motivic development, his orchestration, his powerful sense of form, his genius from writing tunes you think you’ve known all your life or about the simple, heartrending sense of Weltschmerz that he captures better than most of his German colleagues, but I won’t. My opinion ultimately means no more than anyone else’s- it’s not my arguments that you should listen to, but Elgar’s music.

Instead, I just remind you that the truest piece of human wisdom is the old cowboy proverb-

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

And lift a toast to Edward Elgar, a wonderful composer- one of the very best.  

C. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “The music world on Elgar’s 150th”

  1. Jeff Dunn

    Much as I love Elgar, your statement that the truth of greatness can only be found in scores, no matter what anyone says, strikes me as antithetical to the importance of communication between individuals in establishing worth. Greatness in art is a subjective, psychological thing, and is best measured by persistence over time of respected musicians AND listeners in advocating the worth of a composition, whether they study the scores or not. Thus the written word has a part to play, along with the staves and crochets.

    And, you must admit, there will always be musicians who study scores, even deeply, and STILL don’t like a work. No work, even “great” ones, can universally speak to everyone.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Jeff-

    Thanks for the comment- good to hear from you. This part of your comment

    “importance of communication between individuals in establishing worth”

    Is certainly interesting, because, afterall, it is the communicative power of music that fascinates us. However, it seems that there are plenty of instances of great art that has fallen in and out of favor with audiences or critics. Does that mean it became less goood? Did Bach’s music suddenly get better when Mendelssohn revived the St Mattew Passion? No- everything that was great in that music was all there for performers and audiences to study and share. Likewise, a bad review doesn’t make music less good. I don’t think greatness is a subjective quality- I just think we are all, at best, fallible and prejudiced listeners and students.

    It’s what that is in the score that is what gives it the power to create those transcendent moments that we all love. When a great piece doesn’t connect with us, the failing is ours, either the performer’s or the listener’s or both- not the music’s. We all have those blind spots…

    Ken

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