A great composer or not?

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, June 01, 2007

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Sir Edward Elgar and the media is falling over itself to try to justify the fact that this serious and melodious composer remains so popular.

It is not just the Pomp and Circumstance Marches that are loved by many but his symphonies, "Dream of Gerontius", "Enigma Variations" and many others. He is loved by musicians and singers. In a recent article Dame Janet Baker wrote excitedly about the joy of singing in the "Dream of Gerontius", the glory of that wonderful music. Sir Georg Solti was a great advocate of Elgar's music; Sir John Barbirolli conducted him; other conductors found great riches there.

So what is the problem? Why this rather shame-faced apology by critics and columnists. Well, first of all, the very fact that the music is popular makes the man unacceptable to many of them. But, more importantly, there is the question of the Last Night of the Proms (boo, hiss) that rumbustious letting off of steam and display of high spirits that include a certain amount of singing of patriotic songs. Well, up with this we cannot put.

Anyone who has ever been to the Last Night or watched it on TV (the real Last Night not the rather silly extensions to Hyde Park and ever more cities in the UK) knows that it is not precisely ultra-nationalistic. It is jolly and happy and rousing, a party for those who had attended the concerts throughout the summer and paid serious attention to them. (Yes, I know other people go as well but they are not the real prommers.)

The Last Night as an institution was invented not by Sir Henry Wood but by Sir Malcolm Sargent, "Flash Harry" himself. It has been changed and refined over the years and every change is greeted with dismay by the faithful and every year that does not do away with "Land of Hope and Glory" or "Rule Britannia" invokes gloom among the self-righteous and trendy commentators who see nothing wrong about display of patriotism by almost any other country except Britain. The other exception is the United States.

Just like the Proms in general, with Nicholas Kenyon finally releasing his deadly grip on them, will continue to evolve and change and, one hopes, improve, so will the Last Night of the Proms that will retain much of its traditional character as well.

Behind it all, there will remain the inescapable figure of Sir Edward Elgar, a man whose music is loved by many, high and low, for many different reasons. Long may that continue.

1 Responses to A great composer or not?

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. From the pop group who sack their drummer when he nips out for a packet of fags to the politics of the Berlin Philharmonic, all musicians are elitists. As very few can accumulate great wealth or material possessions, the have to display their status in a different way. Hence their championing of “difficult” works. As the virtues of certain composers become obvious to the great mass of the population and pass the test of time, they are in a quandary. When experts, presenters etc. are finally forced to acknowledge the greatness of a masterpiece, I am amused by how often they opt for the word “lollipop”.

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