ENDNOTES, April 2019
by Stuart Millson
In this edition: musical meditations on death and national decline
From Chandos records, come two less-frequently-performed masterpieces by the doyen of English music, Sir Edward Elgar: The Music Makers (written in 1912) and The Spirit of England, a choral-orchestral heroic lament from the First World War. Both pieces exhibit all of the qualities of a composer still at the height of his power – and yet the music, for all its glories, transmits a sense of unease, valediction and of greatness, slowly ebbing away. The Music Makers sets the words of a 19th-century poet, Arthur O’ Shaughnessy:
“We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wand’ring by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world forsakers…”
After a brief orchestral introduction which establishes an immediate mood of stately melancholy – yet underpinned by a tide of turbulence – the choir (on this recording, the BBC Symphony Chorus) sings O’Shaughnessy’s lonely testament of all poets and artists: “…Yet we are the movers and shakers/Of the world forever, it seems…” In this work, Elgar followed a motif which surfaced time and again through his composing career: a desire to escape the life of an artist, as much as to create – and the idea that his works were sometimes failures; that he had failed to find that celestial high-note, that “God was against art”. The Music Makers unfolds as a memory-album of Elgar’s past triumphs: famous themes from works that made his name – the First Symphony, the Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures arise from the mournful depths, and it seems that we are listening to an Elgar requiem.
Under the baton of the veteran Elgarian Sir Andrew Davis, this 35-minute-long piece – very seldom played and with few recordings to its name – attains a true depth of tone and becomes more than just a re-assembly of previous material. Sir Andrew always approaches the composer as if on a passionate pilgrimage of the soul; and he brings The Music Makers within striking distance of The Dream of Gerontius –clearly willing the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its accompanying voices to find the truth at the heart of a great composer’s lonely farewell. The contralto solo Dame Sarah Connolly achieves wonderful moments in her lines on the new recording, bringing to mind the “Elgar vocal tradition” established by Dame Janet Baker.
Three years on from the O’Shaughnessy setting, Elgar’s world-weariness continued unabated – but this time, he turned to the patriotic sentiments of Laurence Binyon in a work for solo vocalist, orchestra and chorus, The Spirit of England. By 1915, the British Army faced the might of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany across a swamp of mud. The horrible reality of the stalemate on the Western Front brought no real glory; and despite the exhortations to duty, defence and England in Binyon’s poem – an idea which Elgar honoured in his music – a “war requiem” mood manifests itself in the piece. It begins, accordingly, not with cheerful, volunteering, “we’ll-beat-the-Hun” jingoism – but with a mood of burden and duty; of a stoical call to arms in the cause of a great country:
“Now in thy splendour go before us,
Spirit of England, ardent-eyed,
Enkindle this dear earth that bore us,
In that hour of peril purified.”
Tenor soloist Andrew Staples is not a soft tenor voice from Housman’s ‘Land of Lost Content’, but rather an almost operatic, heldentenor, fully at one with the temperament of what today is an unfashionable work about nation and war. Elgar grew to hate the conflict – horrified as much by the slaughter of artillery and supply-line horses, as by the loss of a generation of young men. He dedicated the piece to his own county regiment, The Worcesters, and in the second section – entitled, To Women– evoked the vigil kept by the wives and sweethearts at home; and the great chasm of not knowing – of the long nights spent brooding on the loss which tomorrow’s telegram might bring. The last movement, For the Fallen, contains some of the most meditative writing to be found in the whole score – especially a slowly-emerging, beautifully-delicate (again, melancholy) woodwind theme, conjuring up a misty autumnal lane in Worcestershire, an echo of home to a serving soldier from that county’s regiment.
Superbly recorded and played, as you would expect from Chandos, there is little to criticise here, but for one small comment. Returning to the work’s opening, in which the orchestra builds the scene ready for the entrance of the chorus, Sir Andrew Davis has opted for an understated approach, with the orchestra sounding subdued, even astringent. One missed the more expansive, reverberant prelude which is to be found on Sir Alexander Gibson’s old RCA recording with the Scottish National Orchestra, made at the end of the 1970s in the venue of Paisley Abbey and which was re-issued many moons ago on CD – by Chandos. The preference for this reviewer for The Spirit of England is with the older version – simply because of the more authentic, involving and – frankly – overwhelming treatment of the opening bars. But Sir Andrew Davis, with his BBC forces and tenor Andrew Staples, offers an insight into Elgar, the man and his music, at that moment in history when so much changed forever.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Elgar, The Music Makers, The Spirit of England, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, Chandos, CHSA 5215
Elgar, Coronation Ode, The Spirit of England, conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson. CHAN 8430