Wednesday 23 January 2013

Elgar the European

No doubt those Little Britainers who want to batten down the hatches against Europe will be using ‘Nimrod’ or Pomp and Circumstance yet again as the background to their frothing diatribes. Which makes me mad because no composer was more of a true European, or for that matter a true citizen of the world, than Edward Elgar (and I’m talking not of his conservative outer life but his musical world-within-world). He may have suffused his scores with the essence of Worcestershire/Herefordshire woods, hills and rivers, but that hardly amounts to callow nationalism, and it's one of the reasons I love him so deeply.

Forgive me if I repeat myself, but ‘Nimrod’ is a classic example of misrepresentation. It’s actually the portrait of an Anglicized German, A J Jaeger (pictured below), and has its roots in a summer evening conversation Elgar held with his beloved publisher friend about Beethoven’s slow movements. The result is, of course, based on the Adagio cantabile of the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata. So, music about a German based on a German. The stout and steaky tune seconds in to the first Pomp and Circumstance March? Listen to the 'Cortège de Bacchus' from Delibes’s Sylvia, a movement cited by Elgar in a different context, and you’ll hear where the rhythmic idea comes from, note for note (though not pitch for pitch). Bizet and Massenet are other strong influences.

Elgar’s phenomenal orchestration came partly from his many trips to Germany to see Wagner’s operas. There Richard Strauss hailed him, after a performance of The Dream of Gerontius, as ‘the first English progressivist’. His love of Italy follows Strauss’s example in the ‘concert overture’ (essentially tone-poem) In the South, and surfaces elsewhere when least expected. During the First World War, he didn’t so much thump a narrowly patriotic tub as show his musical solidarity with Poland and Belgium. 

More than anything, Elgar is truly international and a world-class composer, as my City Lit students agreed when we looked at the First Symphony and went to hear Andrew Litton's outstanding interpretation of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. Unfortunately my effusions over Cockaigne the following week - I was amazed to find it has no less than eight memorable themes - were undermined by the bizarre performance of it, which I heard on the Radio: the aptly named Long Yu dragged every slow passage out to an eternity. Inside information told me that the interpretation clocked in at 2m40s longer than the longest previous BBC performance (they keep records of timings, helpfully). 

Which for a 15-minute piece is absurd, of course. Elgar as conductor or Boult will put you right. Boult's Cockaigne was twinned on the original LP with the most opulent recording of the Second Symphony (though it was Boult's classic 1944 recording that I chose on Radio 3's Building a Library).

Anyway, I hope I can enlarge on some of the international and/or European aspects when I join Anthony Payne and Dr Heather Wiebe in a Royal Philharmonic Society discussion before Saturday’s performance of Gerontius.  It’s dauntingly titled  The Edwardian Era: Empire, Society and Culture, and as I can’t contribute too much to that, I’ll be hoping to sound the trumpet for Elgar as part of a wider musical movement. Also hoping to catch James MacMillan’s earlier talk exploring ‘what role faith and mysticism have in artistic vision’.

All the above is loosely connected with Cameron’s long-awaited speech today. To paraphrase a friend of a friend, what it comes down to is a case of one foot forward, two feet back, half a foot forward again: a) the European Union is OK; b) no it’s not, they all have to dance to our tune and if they don’t we’re not playing; and c) actually we’d better play after all. In a muddled message that will generate years of uncertainty, the upshot is that he renegotiates terms to get some of the UK's powers back, and then asks the British people whether they like that or not. That doesn’t account for what happens if, as seems likely, he fails to get what he wants from the other EU countries.

At least the pro-Europeans are beginning to get their voices heard in the surrounding kerfuffle. It’s high time someone of eloquence spelled out the advantages of Europe to counter all the falsehoods in the Mail and the Torygraph (apparently the press office at the European Commission sends correction after correction to the papers, but they never listen – not even the Guardian, which for some reason is giving the appalling Farage houseroom as a funny guy).

So – cue lots of facts and links – let’s try and set the record straight. If this first fact were spelled out, people might begin to think differently. It’s this: that the size of the administration is NOT bloated, as most people believe. The entire staff of all EU institutions, agencies and other bodies totals 55, 000. The Commission on its own employs 32,000 people – smaller than the staff of Birmingham City Council.

Are EU civil servants overpaid? Hardly. According to one source, ‘comparative studies confirm that the remuneration package…is similar to what is offered by other international organisations that employ expatriate staff. In fact, for many job profiles the EU civil service offers the lowest entry-level salaries amongst international organisations’.

What has the EU/EEC ever done for us? Please read this dazzling list in a letter from Simon Sweeney to The Guardian. That should do the trick. And the TUC is in no doubt of what our government’s up to here. At an Executive Committee Meeting on 15 January it declared that ‘the Government wants to take away the rights working people have gained over the last thirty years from the European Union. Social Europe has provided working people with more equality, more protection from redundancy, more information about what's happening at their workplace, as well as a shorter working week and paid holidays. The Government wants to take that away from working people, and make them work longer hours for less pay’. It goes on to point out the obvious, that Cameron’s ‘dithering’ will play havoc with our economic interests.

If you’re still with me, the full facts of EU policy can be found here (economic benefits), here (social and employment policy) and here (working time directive). Unfortunately I'm probably preaching to the converted, but it's good to have chapter and verse in hand. Now we need a really charismatic apostle to go out and fight the good fight to halt the re-feudalisation of blinkered Blighty: a recommendation also made by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski in his Blenheim Palace speech last year, full of further strong arguments from a man who might have been expected to be a Eurosceptic.

Finally, a reconciliatory footnote. 50 years ago this Tuesday de Gaulle and Adenauer joined their countries' hands together again by signing the Elysée Treaty. The BBC put up a lovely little piece about a song that encapsulated a respect regained: 'Göttingen', French chanteuse Barbara's hymn to the German university town she adored (and which I came to love at first sight two Junes ago). The sound version of the song in French there (Barbara also recorded it in German) is the best, but here's a filmed performance to complement it.


Susan Scheid said...

While I'm not qualified to comment on Britain's stance toward the EU, your first sentence sort of says it all, doesn't it? The one thing I can say from this side of the pond is how ill-served we all are by jingoistic sentiments. Exhibit A, though only one of many, is the US stance toward Iraq in the wake of September 11, 2001.

As for Elgar, Ken Russell's portrait of Elgar, most particularly the terrible misuse of P&C to support nationalist sentiment in time of war, has made a lasting impression in our house. You know, only when I met the Edu-Mate did I learn of Elgar. I thought at first, well, this is a Brit obsession. How wrong I was. Gerontius, Sea Pictures, oh so many beautiful pieces he has given us. We would do well to learn from his example, rather than from those who imposed interpretations on his music for other ends.

David said...

I remember being in New York at the time Americans were agin all things French. The xenophobia would have been comical had it not been so insistent.

Elgar does well in America, and so many American conductors have championed his symphonies (Previn, Litton, Slatkin and Zinman stand at the top of the list). There's still a huge problem in central Europe: Germany especially is resistant (but so it is to Sibelius, too). I've always thought Abbado would have been the perfect candidate for the Elgarian tempo rubato. I reckon those two are easily up there with any of Mahler's.

Annie Morgan said...

Having learnt quite a lot from your comments about Elgar, I also totally support your statement about the European Union and the multiple and nefarious misinterpretations by the British press, not to mention HMG and our PM. Moreover, whereas it is true that the EU in general, and the European Commission in particular suffer from a democratic deficit, always and rightly deplored this side of the Channel, it is the United Kingdom who has
persistently opposed the idea of electing the President of the Commission by universal or at least indirect suffrage, and resisted any increase of powers for the European Parliament, having also originally fought against electing the latter by direct elections.

Not expecting much from Cameron, I was nevertheless saddened to hear him pooh-pooh the aim of "an ever closer union", which were precisely the words chosen by Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950 when he launched the idea of a European Coal and Steel Community. But enough of that: as you said, we are preaching to the converted. After much disappointment, my one hope is that the younger generations, more widely traveled and free from the whiff of colonial or other grandeur, will look beyond narrow party politics and put us back where we belong - in Europe.

David said...

Three cheers to that, Annie - thanks for your eloquence. And two and a half for the European project, which as Blair has argued needs some overhauling, but it's still the best option we have.

David Damant said...

Just a few points in a complex matter.


But what problem is a fully United Europe supposed to solve? Why move (significantly) from where we are at the moment? One aspect of this is that a single foreign policy is IMPOSSIBLE with so many cultures and national interests, and this is likely to remain so for a long time, perhaps for always. The ideologues who will take any steps to achieve a United Europe ( like the Euro jumped into so carelessly) are as bad as the UK Euro-sceptics (who are not sceptics but antis)

There should not be referendums( ?a) on any topic, or direct elections for any post. Image is so closely a matter of the media, who do NOT show a calm detachment. Would Mrs Merkel or Mrs Thatcher have been directly elected? All these things should be handled by parliaments ( who hopefully would study everything, and who know what people are like in government, not just on television)

Many nice things cannot be afforded. For example, the unions and others very much like protection from redundancy. But if the economy sees a downturn or industries decline, employees need to move. Otherwise all the costs and risk are born by business, and growth is impeded. The ultimate example of this at the moment is France, where ( due to itself and only in part to the EU) it is expensive to hire people and difficult to fire them. How nice and cosy. But in 25 years they will see the relative poverty that resistance to change leads to. The EU's tendency to make life happier can often mean that economics and good sense are ignored. Why say that men and women have to have the same insurance when women drive more carefully and live longer. It is these silly things which make one want to question the Brussels mechanisms and values

The sadness is that we did not join the Messina conversations in 1955, which led to the Treaty of Rome. We were so influential then - especially on questions of democracy - that we could have written the constitution. The French style bureaucratic centralism would then not have appeared

David said...

Your comments show how complicated it all is. But the points about what protections the unions want are slightly peripheral to what EU laws have achieved for workers in this country. Now that we've seen the blatant Tory offer of shares in exchange for rights as the insidious scheme it is, why wonder that the wealthy want to dismantle any rights already established? Let's see what these vague demands Cameron promises turn out to be.

I did like the French minister's comment on joining a football club and then saying 'let's play rugby'.

David Damant said...

One might comment that the French should be very glad that we want to play rugby as they are far better at rugby than they are at soccer

Laurent said...

Was DeGaulle right when he said that Britain should not be allowed into the Common Market as it was then known. No, I think that Mr.Cameron is playing the game of so many politicos these days, trying to please big business and trying to convince the public that a change would serve their interests. A referendum is a bad idea, the common man does not know and has no interest in issues that take more than 2 minutes to hear about. Many as you say will listen to Nimrod have a jingoistic reaction, waive the flag and vote no to the EU.
Cameron is a fool to try this renegotiation, Britain needs Europe, we cannot turn the clock back to days of Empire. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

Roger Neill said...

The Australian artist (and Elgar contemporary) Tom Roberts said: "By making art the perfect expression of one time and one place, it becomes art for all time and all places.

Roger Neill said...

Monteux: one of the greatest of Elgarians!

And have you heard Jurowski, David? How is he in this repertoire?

David said...

I'd just written in response to your first comment that the Enigma Variations are probably a great example of that quotation - and you suggest mighty Monteux (I had the LP coupled, I think, with Brahms's Haydn Variations which seemed to me so pointless by comparison).

I read something along the lines of that remark recently with regard to Bach (I think it was).

As for VJ, I can't think of any major Elgar he has conducted. He would bring a freshness to the symphonies, as he already has to Tchaikovsky and Brahms. But possibly the best interpretation of the Enigma I've heard was Robin Ticciati's with the LSO at the end of last year. Already a great - if he weren't taking over from VJ at Glyndebourne in 2014, he would be a prime candidate as Gergiev's LSO successor in 2016...

Roger Neill said...

A quick webtrawl suggests that VJ has only done the violin concerto thus far - with Znaider and the Concertgebouw in 2010.

I encouraged him a while back to listen to the early acoustic recordings conducted by the composer. They are terrific, if snipped.

David said...

Much as I like Elgar's first recordings, I can't imagine that they'd turn a conductor on to the full-spectrum sounds of the great masterpieces. No, it's Boult in the 1970s who would really do it.

The Violin Concerto was done in Lucerne with Kolja Blacher, the very distinguished leader of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. He just didn't get it, and the audience didn't find it interesting either. Abbado, I've said this before, would be ideal for the symphonies, but I guess it's too late for him to learn them now.

Annie Morgan said...

In my anger reacting to Cameron's speech, I made a factual mistake which has been haunting me ever since! The "ever closing union" reference is located not in Robert Schuman's Declaration, but in the Preamble of the Rome Treaty of 27 March 1957.

David Damant said...

It is often overlooked that when de Gaulle said "Non" he suggested negociations towards a looser arrangement between the EEC and the UK .......a suggestion that was overlooked by everyone at the time. Had that happened things might have been easier then and now.

De Gaulle also forecast that after a " short and disastrous" period of Labour government the Conservatives would return with Heath at their head and it would be he who took the UK into the EEC. Not a bad forecast

David said...

Such are the paradoxes of Europhilia - it crosses party lines. But look at the Tory party now, one or two senior-statesment exceptions apart.

Sir Edward H may have been the worst conductor of Sir Edward E ever. But he's generally admired for what he was good at, no?

David Damant said...

Heath was a terrible Prime Minister since he started out with a coherent free market policy but soon changed to an interventionist economic policy, then inherited by Labour ( who continued it). As a result we were one of the worst economies in Europe and our problems led to the IMF coming in. As the New York Times wrote at the time, we were in a mess entirely by our own fault.

Victoria Viebahn said...

Re the Barbarasong: yes, this little town nestled away here in the heart of Germany is always taking one by surprises! In 1964 'Barbara' was clearly taken by it in spite of her initial doubts about coming to Germany. Then there were problems when she did get here because she'd been told there'd be a grand piano and the instrument in the Junges Theater - now the last of the little cinemas, though the Junges Theater does still exist in another building - was only an upright. But a grand was tracked down at an old lady's house nearby and a group of students went off to fetch it and her concert started an hour or two late but was apparently a wonderful, warming, reconciliatory occasion which people never forgot. She ended up staying a week and giving more performances, as well as writing this song, which was a huge success.

I don't actually believe Schröder was in the audience though he was an evening class pupil – not a doctoral student - at the time, but like everyone else he heard all about this and the song was apparently everywhere and really did make a difference to people's perceptions.

David said...

David - all I can say is that friends who know more about it than I do, Labour supporters in fact, think Heath was one of the best PMs we've had. Though I look at the man and his terrible conducting and do wonder.

Victoria - the detail is enriching, thank you. I love the easy tone of Barbara's delivery, though I have to say the song sounds better in French than it does in German...

David Damant said...

I find it difficult to see how anyone can overlook the disasters of Heath's ( and Labour's) 1970s economic policies and the subsequent vast success of Thatcher's. Of course there are other and more important things than economics but a good economy is a sine qua non of doing those other things

David Damant said...

Elgar's magnificent moustache recalls to one's mind the report by P G Wodehouse of a conversation at The Angler's Rest :

"Where, I've often asked myself " said a Gin and Vermooth "are the great sweeping moustaches of our boyhood? I've got a photo of my grandfather as a young man in the album at home, and he's just a pair of eyes staring over a quickset hedge "
"Special cups they used to have" said the Small Bass " to keep the vegetation out of the coffee"

[Buried Treasure, a Mr Mulliner story]