Heading his manuscript copy of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar quotes John Florio’s translation of Virgil via Montaigne: ‘Whence so dyre desire of Light on wretches grow?’ One of James MacMillan’s themes in his lecture for the Royal Philharmonic Society yesterday was how we wretches today, whether religious in the narrow sense of the word or the wider, still desire the light that music’s most transcendent passages can offer us. Actually, that sounds impossibly pompous, as JMacM’s soft-spoken, reasonable speech, eschewing all mention of himself in that visionary tradition, did not. I couldn’t quite work out the connection between his opening thoughts on Blake as an example of a broader visionary vein in English art and his central assertion of the importance of Roman Catholicism in Elgar’s life and work, but it was all food for thought. Bust of Beethoven in my shot below there to mark the RPS's 200th anniversary.
It’s true, we do tend to shunt Elgar’s Catholicism rather to one side, even in discussing the composer’s most overt assertion of his faith in Gerontius (though what more do you want than the Jesuits’ ‘A.M.D.G’ - ‘Ad majorem Dei Gloria’, ‘To the greater glory of God’ - at the top of the above page?). But perhaps it’s also true – a point not addressed yesterday – that the Catholic fervour which came from Elgar’s mother, and certainly not from his staunchly Anglican father, dwindled in later years. I can’t find the quotations I want, but I still have the hunch that the 'single short remark' Elgar made to Ernest Newman on his deathbed so ‘terrible’ that the younger man never repeated them to anyone might have been ‘I lost my faith in God’ (more frivolously, on hearsay, I’d wish it to be ‘I always preferred young men’, but no more of that).
No matter; the speech threw up plenty of points for discussion and, as Jude Kelly in fine presenting fettle said, we could have sat and talked for another hour. Nice to chat briefly to The Man afterwards, and I’m hugely looking forward not only to hearing his Oboe Concerto again in Glasgow on Friday – he will be elsewhere – but also his new Viola Concerto, due to be premiered by Lawrence Power as part of The Rest is Noise festival. I think I’m right in saying, at least from checking the index, that Alex Ross in his book of that name doesn’t give a single mention to MacMillan, one of the major voices in music today – and one of my two favourites (Adams being the other, of course).
Two hours later, I was in the chair alongside venerable composer Anthony Payne, whom of course we have to thank among other things for that rather miraculous realization of Elgar’s Third Symphony, and Heather Wiebe, Virginia academic newly arrived at King’s College London. Our moderator was Tom Hutchinson of the RPS, and the theme, supposedly, was 'The Edwardian Empire: Society and Culture', obviously with special reference to the performance of Gerontius due to follow in the Royal Festival Hall.
I was wrong in thinking that Heather was there as the cultural historian; she, too, is a musicologist, this time specializing in Britten. So we all had to readapt as we launched our little presentations by way of a start. Frankly, I think the esteemed AP should have gone before me, for clearly I’d stolen some of his thunder with the line about Elgar the European; but I also managed to contrast that with the perceived notion of the court composer to Edward VII. And in any case, Anthony was so genial, wise and good at batting the ball back and forth that it all became a delightful discussion in praise of our composer’s terrific originality. Maybe an antagonist could have stirred it all up more productively, but we had fun – even if I seem to have blanked out chapter and verse in all the after-euphoria (hoping there’s a recording. 15/7 Just discovered there is, here on soundcloud, thanks to The Rest is Noise festival's impressive soundarchiving. James's talk is there too).
We were all of us, JMacM included, seated in what’s supposed to be the royal box for Elder’s performance in the evening. I can’t say it moved me much. This conductor works so hard on revelatory textures, gleaming in the hands of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and is a superb chorus master, there with every word for the LPO Chorus and the Clare College Cambridge singers who served as the semichoir. But he doesn’t strike me as having the natural tempo rubato which late romantic music like this requires. Everything seems dotted and crossed with excessive precision; you can see the wheels at work. And sometimes he’s just too slow, in the tradition of his beloved Goodall, which sank the Angel’s Farewell for me, resplendently as the ever-dependable Sarah Connollly delivered it.
I did love Paul Groves’s hard work on extracting every inch of meaning from Cardinal Newman’s text, though, and in pushing his far-from-Helden voice to the right limits of agony and exultation when needed. The clarity of this truly world-class score came across beautifully. But for me, the desired light never quite shone. Have gone over to Sakari Oramo’s Birmingham recording at home to find out what was missing, and there is all the magic in all the right places.
So, from ‘A.M.D.G’ to Bach’s ‘S.D.G.’ (‘Soli Deo gloria’, ‘Glory to God alone’). Much less heavy weather results from this week’s Sunday cantata (someone told me Radio 3 is following the same calendar as I am; I had no idea). ‘Alles nur nach Gottes Willen’, BWV 72, is one of the short cantatas for the third Sunday after Epiphany* - short, it's argued, because the choir would have got very cold at this time of year; they were allowed to slope off before the hour-long sermon. Lucky them; in my treble days we had to sit and read Commando comics under the desks.
God’s will as exemplified, perhaps, in the day’s reading from Matthew 8 about Christ's healing of a leper (mosaic above from Monreale), is all there is to it. So it makes for a rather complacent sequence, shorn of questioning or suffering The striking minor-key launch of darting, rather agitated strings slightly undercuts the chorus’s sentiments (‘All only according to God’s will’); the music was re-used, not so interestingly in my opinion, at the start of the Gloria in Bach’s G minor Mass, BWV 235.
The alto reaches to the still-lively heart of the cantata. His/her recitative turns to arioso in the nine lines beginning ‘Lord, if thou wilt’ and moves almost seamlessly into the aria with the addition of two solo violins to the cello and continuo line, fugueing in one of the ritornellos. There’s a simple, dancing soprano number and a chorale based on a text by Albert, Duke of Prussia and an old French theme used in a cantata of the previous year, 1725. There – I’ve got off lightly this week**, but I’m looking forward to being tested rather more by JSB in weeks to come. Here's another from Suzuki's Bach series, Robin Blaze replacing Sara Mingardo whom I heard on another instalment of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage 2000.
*As 'Uncle Toby' points out below, I've got my church calendar in a muddle. This year we miss out on the third and fourth Sundays after Epiphany. This is Septuagesima, so I'll have to add another cantata. But that gives me the excuse of two more (fourth Sunday and Sexagesima) next week.
**Clearly not. The Septuagesima candidate I have to hand is 'Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn', on an altogether grander scale. Shall do my duty willingly some time this week