‘Elgar and the Public’
I was extremely interested in Mr.C.W.Orr’s1
article in the January number of The Musical Times, and while
I am able whole-heartedly to share his enthusiasm for Elgar at
his best, I feel bound to point out certain historical inaccuracies
among his remarks.
The folk-song rage did not take
place after the war, as Mr.Orr states, but before 1914, and it
largely manifested itself in the excellent series of concerts
given by Mr.H.Balfour Gardiner2 and the late F.B.Ellis3
, and with which were ultimately associated at that time the activities
of the Oriana Madrigal Society. The post-war period, in fact,
had no bearing whatever on the revival of folk-song in this country
and its application to symphonic art. Mr.Orr says that ‘Parties
of enthusiasts went back to the land,’ carefully noting down the
effusions of rustics ‘to be worked up into English Suites,etc.’
This is a statement which simply will not bear investigation.
In the first place, practically the whole of English folk-song
had been noted long before. (Vide the published journals of the
Folk-Song Society.) The immediate outcome was such works as ‘Brigg
Fair’ by Delius, Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsodies4,and
numerous works by Grainger, Holst, Butterworth and others.Secondly,
at the period of which Mr.Orr writes, new works by British composers,
with one notable exception, were conspicuous by their absence
from folk-song influences. Thirdly, by this time, save for rare
and isolated instances, spontaneous folk-singing on the part of
country people had died out. The idiom of folk-song in British
music is for the moment submerged beneath a wave of unpopularity,
possibly because, despite our national wealth of melodies, we
have not yet produced a Haydn or a Mussorgsky. English folk-song,
as is that of any nation, is apt to become exceedingly dull when
it is handled by musicians who, with the best intentions, possess
more technical resource than inspiration, and who, by virtue of
their surroundings, their sophistication and their respectability,
have never experienced the feeling which gave birth to this kind
of music. Even so, there exists already at least one really important
achievement which owes its existence directly to the influence
of folk-song, and that is the supremely beautiful ‘Pastoral’ Symphony
of Vaughan Williams. I have an unbounded admiration for this work,
and also for Elgar’s Second Symphony, which owes nothing whatever
to primitive music. It is surely possible to wax enthusiastic
over ‘Tristan’ and ‘Parsifal’, without decrying the chamber music
and concertos of Brahms, which are soaked in the good vintage
of folk-song, and to appraise Tchaikovsky’s symphonies without
detracting from those of Borodin and Balakirev. Mr.Orr, himself
a composer of some distinguished songs, is of all people one of
the very last who can afford to sneer at those musicians who have
spent much time and money in searching out and noting down our
tunes of the countryside, which on their own merits are surely
worthy of preservation from the oblivion into which they must
otherwise have fallen.
I, too, remember the first performance
of Elgar’s ‘Falstaff’5 , as I was one of the few enthusiasts
who was present at Queen’s Hall, and I was shocked at the rows
of empty seats on that occasion6. It was difficult to square
this with the public acclamation with which repeated performances
of the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto had been hailed
only a short time before.
In conclusion, let me express the
hope that the recent report that Sir Edward Elgar is ‘at it again’,
after nine years of silence, and is writing a large work, may
prove to be true, and that he may succeed in adding yet another
masterpiece to an honourable series7.
11, Constitution Hill,
1 - C.W.Orr, British composer 1893-1976
2 - Henry Balfour Gardiner 1877-1950.
English composer and also patron of new British music
1912-1913 with an interest in Bax,
Holst and Percy Grainger in particular.
3 - H.Bevis Ellis, composer, killed
in the First World War.
4 - Three Norfolk Rhapsodies were
written - only No.1 has survived.
5 - ‘Falstaff’ : first London performance
was at the Queen’s Hall on Nov.3rd 1913.
6 - See Kennedy: Portrait of Elgar’
Chapter 11: ‘Full Orchestra’. Walter Legge rebukes London
for producing (quote) " only
a beggarly row of half-empty benches".
7 - The Third Symphony, unfinished
at Elgar’s death in 1934, reconstructed Anthony Payne 1998.
8 - Letter undated, but probably
January or February 1933.