Saturday, December 27, 2008

Empire Descending

I only began listening to the music of Edward Elgar seriously after I had begun to build up my "listening chops" for the music of Gustav Mahler. This may seem like an odd juxtaposition; but I feel that it was through the ways in which Mahler prepared my ears for long-scale prolongations that I could then quickly pick up on similar prolongations in Elgar's first symphony. Since my previous exposures to Elgar had been through the tub-thumping performances of Pomp and Circumstance marches and the string serenade, that symphony was a real ear-opener for me. I first encountered it on a radio broadcast in Philadelphia, and I was riveted to the radio from beginning to end.

In retrospect I now wonder whether or not there were also socio-political grounds for an association between Elgar and Mahler. Both lived under monarchies whose monarchs were not particularly effective, even for ceremonial purposes, resulting in a climate of social unrest, which we can now say was just waiting to erupt into the First World War. I sometimes wondered whether or not the funeral marches that occur so frequently in Mahler symphonies were to some extent motivated by his sense of societal decay. In his own correspondence he stated that the funeral march that begins his second symphony was for the funeral of the "hero" of his first symphony, deliberately being cryptic about just who that hero was. This "funereal Mahler" probably influenced my hearing the opening Andante of Elgar's first symphony as an Edwardian funeral march, leading me to feel that Hugh Hudson had decided to incorporate this music in his Greystoke soundtrack to represent the funeral of the British Empire itself (even if imperial control would only be relinquished after the Second World War).

Mahler died before the outbreak of the First World War, while Elgar lived through that whole damned mess. He also had to endure the trivialization of his Pomp and Circumstance marches and found the incorporation of the "Land of Hope and Glory" text in the first of these marches particularly jingoistic. In the period after the War, his most significant achievement was the cello concerto he composed shortly before the death of his wife. Nevertheless, Elgar's "endurance" gave him one major leg up over Mahler, which was his participating in conducting a significant body of his work for the posterity of recordings, including a performance of his violin concerto by a sixteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin. I acquired the three volumes of CDs in EMI's Elgar Edition while I was living in Singapore, and they remain a significant asset in my personal collection of recordings. The first symphony was recorded in November of 1930 over the days 20–22, and the result is pretty impressive when we remember that Elgar was born in 1857. The man was a survivor, and this shows in how he transforms the funereal opening of that symphony into the "hymn of survival" that concludes the fourth movement. "Audiophiliacs" like Steve Guttenberg, who blogs over at CNET, would probably be put off by the "acoustic imperfections" of these recordings; but, given that we no longer have the opportunity to hear Elgar conduct "in the flesh," these are the closest we shall get to such an experience. The quality is so much better than merely adequate that we should relish these documents that EMI has made available as listening opportunities of the highest order.

No comments: