My Fair Elgar

elgar.jpgLike a good Counter Critic, I was brushing up on my George Bernard Shaw musical criticism yesterday (holy fuck! that shit is hooooot!). I started to notice quite soon that in all his criticism, stretching 75 years (1875-1950), there was no mention of composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and all those like them. Instead, Shaw’s main concerns seemed to be over the Romantic composers (Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Liszt), some of whom were actually alive when he reviewed their work.

So I checked out the index to see if there were any references to Arnold Schoenberg. Lo and behold, there was one. When I turned to the page, I found an essay devoted to assessing the historical estimation of Edward Elgar. Ah ha, you must be saying in your head. That’s why I’m supposed to give a shit. That’s right! Because Tony Tommasini recently devoted a review to the Bard Music Festival’s Elgar-themed series of events, Elgar and His World!

And to boot, T-Bone’s article spends a substantial amount of column space bartering over Elgar’s estimation as a composer. Although T-Bone’s verdict is in–that Elgar should be considered a master–Shaw’s take was fascinatingly conflicted; and rightly so.

Basically, the essay, “Sir Edward Elgar,” written in 1920 (nicely into the early heydays of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg) and published in Harper’s Bazar, shews Shaw in an unusual moment of hesitancy. He basically wants to proclaim Elgar as one of the greats (and what Brit wouldn’t at time when it had been three hundred years since their last great composer, Purcell) but is reluctant to do it because even he can tell that Elgar’s music is old fashioned enough to call into question, not his musical genius, but his artistic merit.

Shaw’s thesis was that Elgar picked up where Beethoven left off, backtracking to the mid-19th century, which allowed Elgar to steer clear of the Wagnerian black hole and to forge his own Romantic language that was different from what Brahms was doing. He also believed that with pure technical skill (which is ironic since Elgar was not conservatory trained, which put his reputation at odds with composers like Bennet and Stanford), he could achieve aesthetic rigor like that produced by atonalities (“muddle and noise”) but without compromising the tonal system entirely.

But this backtracking, even today, rings of a self-gratifying modern stubbornness to contemporariness. Elgar (born in 1857) starting over from the aesthetics of the 1830’s is similar (I know, to a limited degree, but hear me out) to composers today who back track to the amorphous, gratuitous chromatic language of Strauss and the late-late-Romantic hold-outs; ergo, Neo-Romanticism.

There’s something about taking this path to classical composition that denies the inherent spirit of exploration and intellectual forwardness that so much of our greatest music exemplifies, regardless of its temporal specificity. But it seems like many composers today are wrapping themselves in blankets of loosely tonal material, in a way, establishing their own fancy as the determining factor for their aesthetics. I think something similar could be said of Elgar. “Fancy” is a term that is generally antithetical to the idea of musical mastery. Not that the great composers don’t have their fanciful moments, but they never seem to assert their aesthetic choices with mere fancy.

In estimating the longevity of the classical music of our time, I think it’s important to weigh these kinds of arguments. Too often, I think critics and producers are eager to proclaim the next great composer (as even Shaw admitted he might be doing, although he concluded, after hearing the Enigma Variations, “‘Whew,’ I knew we had got it at last”). I don’t think we can close the case on any composers today; as the cliche goes, time will tell. But I’m glad we wrestle with these issues, and take them seriously.  Although, if Shaw can teach us anything, it’s not to take things too seriously.

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