Reclaiming Elgar from the Right

Left politics and classical music are not things that instinctively go together – and if there is one thing that has surprised more of my fellow lefties even than my passion for Wagner, it is my deep and abiding love for the music of Edward Elgar.  Most people are familiar with Land of Hope and Glory, and images of flag-waving at the Last Night of the Proms.  They may be familiar with photographs of Elgar in his old age, a stout, tweed-clad, moustachioed Knight of the Realm, looking every inch a member of the establishment.

But those images tell us nothing about a  self-taught, deeply insecure composer born far from England’s cultural and musical establishment – and a composer of music whose emotional openness and expression of deep feeling was about as far from the life of England’s social and cultural elites as one could get (not to mention the emotionally constipated world of the English musical establishment of the time).  Land of Hope and Glory is indeed a wonderful tune, but one whose connotations repelled Elgar in later life.

As with Wagner, it’s essential to get past the myths.  Elgar was born into a middle-class family – his father an organist, piano-tuner and music-shop owner – and a Catholic, in an age when these things mattered; throughout his life he carried a powerful sense of social inferiority and this, combined with the depression that blighted his life, made him hyper-sensitive and prickly in social situations.  Elgar was entirely self-taught (and thus was saved from from the stultified mediocrity of the English musical establishment of his day); his models were the great European masters, Beethoven and Schumann above all, and other than Purcell he was largely ignorant of English music (and certainly of folk music).  The music is entirely in the mainstream European late-romantic tradition, and in his lifetime was recognised as such; before the First World War broke out Elgar was regarded on the continent, especially in Germany, as a major figure, attracting praise from Richard Strauss among others.  Elgar was, among other things, an orchestrator of genius, far beyond anything that he could have learned from the tepid Mendelssohnians at London’s Royal Academy. It was not for nothing that, preparing Elgar’s First Symphony for its first performance, the conductor Hans Richter – who had conducted the first performances of Wagner’s Ring, declared to his players that this was the greatest symphony of modern times – and not just in England.  It is music that, at its peak, has a confidence and sweep that we associate in hindsight with the Edwardian era; but there is so much more to it than this.  It is deeply personal, not public music.

And Elgar came to hate jingoism and war. Some of the most important figures in his musical life were German – his publisher A E Jaeger, and Richter – and  – despite producing music in as his war work in the early part of the war – he came to detest the way in which Land of Hope and Glory was used to stir up patriotic sentiment in the face of the carnage of the First World War. (It is a profound irony that Nimrod – played on Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph and widely regarded as an expression of noble English sentiment was written as a tribute to  Jaeger, and also to Beethoven: and is believed to have been inspired by a conversation with Jaeger about Beethoven that expressed their shared love of German musical culture).  It was his response to war that inspired Elgar, now in his sixties, to write a series of late works, that remain among his greatest and most profound – his Piano Quintet and above all the Cello Concerto, works that, among other things, express his despair at war and the emotions that surrounded it.

Where do the myths come from?  There’s no doubt in my mind that ideology plays a huge part.  Some years ago, the conductor Roger Norrington played Elgar’s First Symphony at the Proms in a way that sought to recreate the performance practices of the first performances – a swifter, lighter approach to the music in which string players did not resort to the lush vibrato that is all-too-often used to warm over excessively slow performances of late romantic music.  The vitriolic reaction to the performance in some quarters said far more about classical music audiences than about the performances; people whose veneration of this music as a sort of nostalgic totem against progress and change had been violated (I should add that, speaking as someone who has moderated an online classical music discussion forum, the deep reaction and fear – and the violent expression of those things – of a few classical music enthusiasts makes most political internet trolls look like rank amateurs).  It’s often ideology that prevents us from hearing this music clearly.

If I wanted to take one work to express what I mean about Elgar it would be his Second Symphony – an hour-long piece in which Elgar writes music of extraordinary range, and takes us close to the emotional edge in a way that people normally would associate with Mahler – the music is often strange, harmonically disjointed, almost hallucinatory at times (that extraordinary passage in the scherzo over a pounding pedal bass).  In a classic piece of Elgarian ventriloquism, he dedicated the piece – whose slow movement is a long and powerful funeral procession – to the memory of the recently-deceased Edward VII, but it is really a piece in which, as Elgar himself described, the composer wrote out his soul.  The quotation from Shelley at the top of the score – “Rarely comest thou, spirit of delight” hints at his depression; references to Venice and Tintagel hint darkly at emotional attachments. The funeral march commemorates a close friend, A E Rodewald, not a state occasion.  The work ends not with the blaze of triumph of the First Symphony, but quietly and reflectively; in contrast to the First with its triumphant finale, its first performance was coolly received by a half-full hall (“they sat there like stuffed pigs” wrote a deeply-hurt Elgar afterwards) and subsequent performances were few and far between. It was a fate that befell much of Elgar’s later music.

So, forget the flag-waving – Elgar was an outsider, an auto-didact, a man who came to hate war, and who wrote music of extraordinary emotional force and generosity that has, for generations, been mistakenly appropriated as a symbol for English patriotic nostalgia.  Elgar’s music is so much better than that. It is music that is so unequivocally alive, being appropriated in the name of the decrepit and discredited; it seems to me to encapsulate everything that the English establishment is not. Perhaps it is the way in which this music challenges and subverts so many conventional, establishment, conservative notions of Englishness that begs the question of just why he shouldn’t sit alongside Blake and Wordsworth and William Morris in the artistic pantheon of the English left.  Certainly the music needs to be rescued from the jingoists.

I like to think that in a future world in which we have grown out of patriotism and flag-waving, perhaps one day he will.


9 thoughts on “Reclaiming Elgar from the Right

  1. Good blog! Elgar was both insecure and chipped on the shoulder. He hated it when his “rank” of knight was overlooked, and thought that were it not for his background (especially Roman Catholicism) he would have been ennobled.

    On the other hand it was Jaeger who persuaded him to write the “sight of God ” section of Gerontius. Somewhere I have the typeset proof copy without it. Jaeger also suggested the E.D.U. variation.

    His cycling, trombone-playing, and Wolves-supporting personae only add to the Enigma.

  2. The Elgar statue in Hereford – which features him leaning against his bicycle, looking at the Cathedral – is a good complement to this analysis: Elgar as 1890s everyman, looking up.

  3. We don’t need to “grow out of” either patriotism or flag waving. What we need is a world in which difference is mutually celebrated and respected and I suspect that that will be easier (if not exactly “easy”) to achieve anyway!

  4. Great post. I myself have to admit to having been put off by Elgar, precisely owing to his most vocal and infamous fans- e.g. David Starkey.

    Will certainly give his music some more thought.

  5. I was born and grew up a mile from Elgar’s birthplace. The Malverns are always visible on the horizon, eight miles away, shimmering in summer, streaked with snow in winter. The poignancy and wistfulness of his music, such as Dream Children, go perfectly with my idyllic memories, lying in the grass on Holly Hill looking at the hills blue in the distance, a magic place. These were the days when the main social divide in our village was between those who had seen the sea, and those who hadn’t.
    I think you make far too much of the flag-waving at the last night in your sour, censorious, lefty way. It is a very benign expression of patriotism, if that, more simply a tradition of togetherness. See Sarfraz Mansoor’s account of his visit to the last night:

    I’m surprised you allow yourself to even like classical music. My encounters with lefties informed me that liking classical music is racist – the music of mostly dead white males; just as is loving the countryside or enjoying a landscape. Lefties, in my experience are hectoring, self-righteous, pious, censorious killjoys. Mind you, like most reactionary old gits, I was an enthusiastic red when younger.

    • Anyone who does think classical music is still the preserve of dead white men (and presumably, their successors) should take a look at the orchestras which are becoming much more multicultural, as well as having far more women (even if half of them are viola players – musicians “in joke” alert!!!!).

  6. Good post. You might be interested to know that my former colleague, musicologist J. P. E. Harper-Scott, has made a similar attempt to reclaim Elgar for the left in his popular book Elgar, an Extraordinary Life ( He’s got more specifically about the emancipatory potential of classical music in his most recent academic monograph, and in some of his writing on Wagner. Most publications are freely available on his website.

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