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….