Saturday, November 19, 2005

exploring Elgar's enigmatic side

At its most characteristic his music does not aspire to pure expression, but to a complex of emotions – rich, ambivalent, often conflicting – that is truly Romantic. If the symphonies are to some extent autobiographical, admitting frailties and doubts as well as strengths and visions, then their occasional overworkings, rhythmic monotony and inferior ideas can be accepted as part of a comprehensive and adult perception of his world.

- Diana McVeagh: "Sir Edward Elgar," Grove Music Online
To me Elgar's Second Symphony feels a bit like a Tchaikovsky symphony turned upside down. It starts out with all the pompous, blustery self-assuredness that ends Tchaik's 5th, and you wonder where he can possibly go from here. As it turns out, he goes exactly in the opposite direction, towards doubt, frailty, and deep melancholy, as well as some lovely strengths and visions, and finishes in a strangely elegiac mood. It is as if the story began with "happily ever after," but then the storyteller starts filling in the details and we're not quite so sure anymore.

For a great composer of proud, unironic marches, Elgar seems to have been quite a complex guy, and his ambiguities find their way into his music and its criticism. Here's Alex Ross on the First Symphony:
Elgar's themes have catchy mid-sections, full of dreamy suspensions and dying falls, but they have no real beginning or end. They slouch eternally down, like a great general seated on a too comfortable sofa... The symphony catches my interest when it seems to grow infuriated with its insistently ambulatory material: every time the theme returns, the orchestration around it gets more bizarre, until the brass let out syncopated shrieks and the woodwinds try to whistle something else. The music exhibits self-loathing for its imperial sloth. This is an astonishing feat of psychological complexity, but not an entertaining one.

- Alex Ross, "Classical Kitsch," The New Yorker, Feb. 15, 1999, p. 90-91
That seems a little harsh, but Elgar's symphonies can get awfully heavy at times. We often have to restrain the urge to overplay, as loud passages transition into even louder ones. Thankfully Elgar's orchestration rarely becomes truly overbearing - he seems to have been a master of the orchestral climax, always leaving something extra for the end, and not just shrieks and whistles.

Maybe that explains why Elgar has become the stereotypical composer of imperial marches and graduation processions. His music is filled with so much grandeur and promise, striving towards some pinnacle of accomplishment, which in the end is just as elusive as that mysterious theme in the Enigma Variations. That score ends with a line from Tasso that seems to have been one of Elgar's favorites: : ‘Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio’ (‘I long for much, I hope for little, I ask for nothing’). That diminuendo of resignation seems to run through much of Elgar's music.


Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Matt, I think you are natural music critic. You knock the socks off of all those critics out there. Maybe you can make some good money on the side?

Matt Heller said...

Thanks so much, Lydia! I'm not sure how much sock removal I'm doing, but it's always nice to try on some different hats.

I worry though that being a musician and a critic would be a little like being the sex columnist from "Sex in the City" - how can you give yourself over to a relationship fully when you have to write up a clear-eyed assessment in the morning? And who wants to look at their stand partner (or other kind of partner) in the heat of the moment and realize, "You're going to write about this, aren't you?"

That's why I try to write based on the rehearsals, so I can abandon my critic's pose in the concert. A trumpet player in our orchestra did write a post-concert blog post this weekend, though, equal parts post-game wrap-up and confessional. It's always nice to scoop the professional critics, even if you can't deny them their hosiery.