Why Americans don’t hear more Elgar

The topic came up this week in another venue of why we don’t hear more of Elgar in the  US than Pomp and Circumstance, the Cello Concerto and the Enigma Variations. As it happens, I’ve been doing quite a bit of Elgar in the US of late, and am doing the First Symphony in a couple of months, so I thought I’d try to unravel the question- is it because he’s too English? Is it because the other pieces aren’t as good? Maybe it is something simpler?

I don’t think it is any accident that his two repertoire works in the US (Enigma and the Cello Concerto) are, by quite a bit, the most technically accessible works in his output. Imagine a conductor who has done the Cello Concerto thinking “wow, that was great, didn’t he write a violin concerto, too? Maybe I should do that next year?”

Then he opens the fiddle concerto score, and instead of the compact, transparent and understated Cello Concerto score, sees something that looks like a Mahler symphony with an impossible violin part, a tempo change or femata in almost every bar. It looks impossible to play and impossible to put together, and the last movement alone is longer than the entire cello concerto, and don’t even get him started on how difficult it is to follow the cadenza… And what is “thrumming?!?” Then, who is going to play the fiddle part? Hillary Hahn and Kennedy are the only A-listers who do it, and you can’t afford them. Do you want to entrust it to the local violin prof? Is someone going to learn it for you then never play it again for the next 10 years?

Likewise, Enigma, challenging as it is, is more or less technically accessible for any amateur orchestra. Now look at the First Symphony- it is orders of magnitude more challenging, and there are all sorts of funny notations- big capital A’s and R’s in the score… What does that mean? The conductor suddenly imagines answer all kinds of questions in rehearsals and not getting anywhere. The second movement is in 1/2- yikes!

As I said, I’m doing Elgar 1 in America this year, and it is going to be an interesting project. It might have been a bad choice, but it was the orchestra’s decision this time! To take the obvious comparison- if I was to go in and do a Mahler symphony, even one the orchestra had never played, most of the musicians would own a recording, have studied the excerpts for auditions, and have played a few of the others. Every time I do Till or Heldenleben or Don Juan, I can count on the fact that even if the orchestra has never played it, most of the players have learned the nastiest excerpts. Not so with the Elgar Symphonies.

Then the 2nd Symphony is twice as hard as the first, and much more difficult interpretively…

We did Cockaigne two years ago and one of our horn players came up to me at the break and said “god, this is the hardest, most tiring piece nobody had ever heard of. ” In the South- even harder, and you need a WORLD CLASS violist in your orchestra…. And Falstaff????? Yikes!

But the interpretive dangers in all of these pieces are significant, and, sadly, many Americans have a very corrupt sense of Elgar’s style. I remember a famous sectional coach who thought he was funny saying “Elgar is like having a roast beef dinner three meals a day, seven days a week.” Well, just think about the idea of the 2nd movement of the Cello Concerto played with this kind of stodgy, heavy approach. Elgar’s own recordings are lean and mean- full of forward motion with brilliant, edgy brass playing. Not lardy or heavy.

And frankly, Elgar’s music suffers from some of the same interpretive excesses as many of his contemporaries from Bloch to Mahler- confronted with a wealth of highly specific performance instructions from the composer, conductor’s take that as license to do whatever they want. They see all the notated tempo nuances and think, “heck, I can change tempo all the time!” The poor music collapses under the weight of their self-indulgence, and audiences come away feeling like they’ve heard something pompous, overblown and boring rather than something coherent, thrilling and focused.

Elgar constructed a public personality to enable him to function as a professional and social entity in Victorian and Edwardian England, but he was not the Colonel Blimp he made himself out to be. Elgar’s own description of Englishness tells us he didn’t see his life’s work as a nationalistic exercise

“An Englishman will take you into a large room, beautifully proportioned, and will point out to you that it is white- all over white- and somebody will say what exquisite taste. You know in your own mind, in your own soul, that it is not taste at all—that is the want of taste—that is mere evasion. English music is white and evades everything.”


Most people know the Violin Concerto through Kennedy- who now takes about an hour to perform it. When we did it with Jorja Fleezanis in February this year, we finished in 46 minutes. Now, Kennedy is a great player and has been developing his own take on the piece for 30 years, but imagine doing the concerto with a young player who has learned the piece from a Kennedy recording….. Yikes!

We’ve been working our way through Elgar’s orchestral music in Pendleton, and the good news is that the audiences LOVE it- they went berserk for the fiddle concerto. I’ve also seen that the technical challenges in Elgar are like those in Strauss- he was too good a musician to write impossible or un-idiomatically. If you put in the work, his music is very playable. I’m sure more of his music can and will catch on in America, it just is going to take some hard work and some good performances….

Here are some thoughts on Elgar from my friend Michael Steinberg. My thoughts on Englishness and Elgar here.

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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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10 comments on “Why Americans don’t hear more Elgar”

  1. ComposerBastard

    err…maybe I disagree that it’s merely a problem for Elgar. Then, maybe the technotronics is not the real reason at all…

    Why don’t we hear more Walton or Tippett or Bridge or Perry or Delius in the US?

    Then again why don’t we hear more Honegger, Dohnyani, Ginastera, Hanson, Nielsen, or even Piston?

    I don’t believe its a technical issue is it with all these folks?

  2. Robert Berger

    Bravo ! Your comments on Elgar could not have been more perceptive. I got to
    know the two completed symphonies from the Solti LPO recordings, which I still
    love, and are anything but pompous and stodgy. Falstaff deserved to be heard nore
    often; Andrew Davis and the NY Phil. did it some years ago. I have an excellent
    recording of the violin concerto on RCA with Zukerman ,Slatkin and St.Louis.
    I also love In other Elgar orchestral works. Have you ever done The Dream of
    Gerontius, a very difficult work to pull off successfully, but worth the effort.? Colin Davis and the New York Phil. did it a few years ago. No question, Elgar is
    one of the most misunderstood of composers.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi CB

    I fear your question is a bigger one that mine- I was just looking for reasons we hear the cello concerto and Enigma more than everything else of his put together. I’m sure it’s not quality or Englishness….

    Otherwise, your list runs the gamut- Honnegger, Piston and Nielsen are all hard to play, and Piston certainly suffers for having written all those books in the eyes of administrators and players. I have a hard time doing Hanson because of his worse-than-Orff politics and his refusal to help Bartok. Delius is pretty sleep stuff- you have to be awfully relaxed to get through it. Walton should be done more, but all the major pieces- the three concertos, the symphonies and the Hindemith Variations (what a FAB piece) are all super tough, too….

    We’re trying, though…

    BTW- Walton Cello Concerto is on my “will play for beer money” list of cello concertos I am dying to play. Don’t listen to received wisdom- it is an even better piece than the Viola Concerto. If you need a cheap cellist who knows and loves the piece, please call us!


  4. Osbert Parsley

    Great to hear from another person who likes Elgar! I’ve had a lot of success bringing around people who thought they didn’t like his music with works like the two choral psalm settings – both of which are pieces I’m dying to do with the right choir.

    You might consider looking at Gordon Jacob’s orchestral arrangement of the Organ Sonata as being a somewhat more manageably-sized Elgar orchestral piece. Normally, I bridle at conductors who program transcriptions of organ music (don’t they have enough rep of their own?), but in this case I don’t mind – the Sonata is really orchestral music that happens to have been composed for organ. I play the piece occasionally, but it’s never really satisfying as there are no organs in my area capable of really bringing the piece off with the appropriate colours.

  5. David Preiser

    All good points (especially about Kennedy, who has completely lost the plot, if his last Proms concert was any indication). I was also struck by your comparison to Strauss, which does make sense when one thinks about building those gestures.

    Sadly, you’re also right in your cost-benefit analysis of doing these works. There is only so much room in a season for non-standard works, and the way things go these days the extra space will be taken up by a B-level concerto or two so orchestra principals can get their star turns, a new(ish) American work commission by the orchestra or an associated organization, the obligatory preciously-named piece by the composer in residence, or even a work by a local composer or orchestra member. Then for many groups there’s film score night, pops night, kiddie night, etc. All that has to be considered before a conductor can even think about looking at Elgar 1. And then the preconceived notions you mention rear their ugly heads, followed by the technical and practical obstacles. Do programmers think the audience won’t be interested because of that bad reputation? Fortunately you don’t. But it’s not surprising that a lot of this music will fail the cost-benefit analysis in many music director’s minds. I’m not saying I agree with that perspective, of course, but it’s probably pretty common.

    It would be great to see a wider variety of interesting works chipping away at the Three B’s and the Three M’s. Thankfully there are more and more conductors like yourself willing to lead a bit of cultural change rather than fall victim to it. After all, it’s not like performing these pieces would be a risk. If it’s done well, the audience will respond to good music. It’s more about taking control over the experience rather than letting fashion dictate forever.

    As for Hindemith, “Mathis der Maler”, please.

  6. ComposerBastard

    The walton cello concerto is a fab piece, but I have a hard time finding a good recording. I heard it on BBC3 a couple of days ago and was really taken with it. I only have one movement of the thing on recording.

    I can understand Hanson issues – politically, that is. Piston I have no idea why. You would also think such a force as Sessions you would be hearing his Symphonys on the A orchestras but nada. Its a disgrace.

    How about an English Composers Series or Festival? Anything from that period is tops in my listening list.

  7. Reid

    America has an oddly political culture; things that often shouldn’t be political are. We [Americans] hear Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovski, Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, and, rightly or wrongly, don’t associate them with a politic, or a culture. For [American] audiences, it’s all about the tunes for a lot of the old, dead guys who’s names they’ve heard before.

    As a philistine, it feels to me as if a handful of composers have been subsumed by their nationalities or politic, and their music’s reputation has suffered for it. Elgar, here, is known as much for being English as a composer, and the most famous recordings of his work seem to be by British performers. It may rub American audiences the wrong way, and start out with that taste in our mouths. Perhaps his celebrity during life, at least in England, has a bit to do with America’s distrust of Elgar.

    And, Elgar’s a lot of work. The All-Elgar program was a bear. And let me show you the Walton Viola Concerto excerpts I copied out of the parts one day (for study purposes only–not something you see lying around somewhere). And, of course, an American orchestra is never going to sound like a British orchestra, not matter if they drink like a German orchestra, no?

    Or, maybe we’re just lazy.

  8. Guy Aron

    Well, Kolja Blacher does a very good Elgar – I heard it in Melbourne – Sitkovetsky has recorded it too & Ehnes’ performance at the last Proms was well received. Funnily the conductor in the performance I heard (Marcus Stenz) was German too, and it was very idiomatic and beautiful. Maybe the English aspect is being a bit overdone and we need to think of Elgar as a German English composer. (Of course that was where he had a lot of recognition early on, before it happened in England.) Not that he doesn’t sound English – that painful tenderness and general emotionalism is very distinctive. But is he English English or German English?

    People of course like to pigeonhole (the English Mahler) but the more you hear of a composer’
    s works, the more differentiated a view of them one has. Of course if no-one does anything except a few things that are done to death it’s hard to get much of an overview – which is where your post comes in. Orchestras need conductors like you with a real passion for a composer, who will nag them to programming that composer more widely & deeply. More power to your bowing arm!

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