Elgar: The Music Makers – a musical autobiography?

img_3552The next concert of Highgate Choral Society will take place on Saturday, 11 March 2017 at 7 pm at All Hallow’s Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. As our concert last March also this concert features English music.

The concert begins with an orchestral work by Frederick Delius: The Walk to the Paradise Garden. For Sea Drift by Delius the chorus and Marcus Farnsworth as baritone soloist join the New London Orchestra. After the interval Edward Elgar’s The Music Makers follow.

This blog post is about Elgar’s The Music Makers.

Edward Elgar ‘s The Music Makers, Op. 69 is a work for contralto soloist or mezzo soprano soloist, chorus and orchestra. It consists of a single movement and lasts about 40 minutes.

1. Elgar set in The Music Makers the poem Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881) to music. O’Shaughnessy was a British poet of Irish descent. He worked in the zoological department of the British Museum specialising in reptiles, but his true passion was poetry. The Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown belonged to his circle of friends. He published three collections of poetry. Ode was published in The Athenaeum of 30 August 1873 and is included in his third collection of poetry Music and Moonlight (1874).

Elgar presumably got the idea to set the Ode to music in 1903. He announced his interest in this poem in an interview in March 1904. The timing of this announcement is particularly interesting. Elgar saw himself always as an outsider. His father was merely a tradesman and Elgar was Roman Catholic. He did not study music, but was self taught. Very often he was uncertain about his abilities and his status in society and suffered from depression. However when he gave the interview things could not be more favourable for him. On 3 February 1904 he was invited to dine with King Edward VII and conducted his famous Pomp and Circumstances March after dinner. On 14 March 1904 his work was celebrated with a three day festival at Covent Garden and two days later the Prime Minister asked him whether he would accept a knighthood in the June Birthday Honours. Maybe the reassurance by these honours and recognition was the reason for him to speak about this project.

O’Shaughnessy Ode deals with the role of the artist in society. The first verse focuses on the isolation of the creative artist. It sees him as “dreamer”  who wanders along the sea shores and sits at the streams. But the verse ends with a very different image of the artist. It says  “Yet we are the movers and shakers / Of the world for ever, it seems”. For the poem the artist is really the one who changes the world and brings progress for society. For the poem artists are the shapers of human destiny and the dreams and visions of the artists become reality in the following generation. This thematic statement of the poem resonated strongly with Elgar. The poem has an optimistic and positive vision of the artist, but Elgar saw this vision as a responsibility and duty of the artist and maybe also sometimes a burden. He saw himself as a Music Maker, but also included

“… all artists who feel the tremendous responsibility of their mission to ‘renew the world as of yore.'”

2. In the following years Elgar was occupied with other projects. He composed in 1906 his oratorio The Kingdom; then his first Symphony (1908) , his Violin Concerto (1910)  and his second Symphony (1911) followed. In 1912 he experienced health problems. He complained about a noise in his ear. This was connected with a loss of balance and problems with his middle ear. He was therefore compelled to rest in April 1912, but took up his work on The Music Makers in May 1912. He finished the score on 18 July 1912. This was just in time to get everything ready for the premiere of the work on 1 October 1912 at the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival where in previous years his The Dream of Gerontius (1900), The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) were premiered. The performance was only a moderate success and many were very critical about the work.

3. Elgar used in The Music Makers many quotations of his previous works. He quoted from both Symphonies, The Apostles, The Dream of Gerontius, his Violin Concerto, the Sea Pictures and most importantly from the Enigma Variations. The quotations were also one of the main criticisms against this work. Some saw this as self indulgent and considered it to be a lack of originality. They thought that this was his response to the pressure of time. Looking at Elgar’s own explanations for the use of quotations this criticism does not seem to do him justice.

The work starts with a short orchestral prelude which presents two themes. Some have suggested that the first theme symbolises the artist’s “sadness and spiritual unrest” and the second theme is associated with the artist’s “mission”. The chorus enters quietly almost unaccompanied and chordal for the first six lines of the poem (“We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams / Wandering by lone sea-breakers / And sitting by desolate streams / World-losers and world-forsakers / On whom the pale moon gleams”). The text and the musical motive which he called the “artist theme” will be repeated throughout the work as a kind of refrain. Elgar follows the text very closely and his quotes are often are direct reaction to the text. He uses a quotation from The Dream of Gerontius for “dreamer of dreams” and generally when the text speaks about “dreams”and a quote from his Sea Pictures for “lone sea-breakers”.  Other quotes are more subtle. Elgar explained in a letter (14 August 1912) to Ernest Newman the reasons why he used quotations from his Enigma Variations.

“I have used the opening bars of the theme (Enigma) of the Variations because it expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of loneliness of the artists as described in the first six lines of the Ode, and to me, it still embodies that sense”.

Elgar does not only quote from his own work, but also includes a quote from Rule Britannia and one from the Marseillaise for the lines “out of a fabulous story / We fashion an empire’s glory”. He clarifies that he does not think that these tunes stand for “peculiarly fabulous stories”, but they are for him

“examples of tremendous influences which ‘music makers’ have achieved – destinies they have swayed and judgements they have foreseen.”

The soloist enters the piece when it is almost half over. She sings the fifth verse of the poem which had a particular significance for Elgar. For the lines “But on one man’s souls it hath broken /  A light that doth not depart / And his look, or a word  he hath spoken / Wrought flame in another man’s heart” he used a quotation of several bars from the Nimrod variation which he had written for his friend A. J. Jaeger. Elgar explained:

“Here I have quoted the Nimrod Variations as a tribute to the memory of my friend, A. J. Jaeger: by this I do not mean to convey that his was the only soul on which light had broken or that his was the only word, or look that wrought ‘flame in another man’s heart’; but I do convey that amongst all the inept writing and wrangling about music his voice was clear, ennobling, sober and sane, and for his help and inspiration I make this acknowledgment.”

For the last line of the poem “And a singer sings no more” Elgar quotes again a passage from The Dream of Gerontius, the music to “Novissima hora est”, the moment when Gerontius dies. The work ends as it had started with a repetition of the artists theme which is again sung by the chorus as a sequence of chords very quietly dying away.

4. Another criticism against Elgar’s work was that his music has undercut the hope of the poem and almost reversed its meaning. It is indeed noteworthy that the poem speaks very much of the vision of art and its importance for the future, however Elgar does the opposite in his works. He looks back and uses music of his past. I think it shows how difficult this vision and the responsibility he felt was for him.

I want to end with two quotes which show his torn relationship with The Music Makers.

After he finished the vocal score on 19 July 1912 he wandered over Hampstead Heath. It was a particularly cold day and one day later he wrote to Alice Stuart Wortley, a close friend, about his feelings:

“It was bitterly cold – I wrapped myself in a thick overcoat & sat for two minutes, tears streaming out of my cold eyes and loathed the world, – came back to the house – empty & cold – how I hated having written anything: so I wandered out again & shivered & longed to destroy the work of my hands – all wasted. ‘World losers & world forsaker for ever & ever’ – How true it is.”

In another letter about six weeks later he acknowledged that The Music Makers were one of his most personal works, maybe even a kind of musical autobiography.

“I have written out my soul in the concert, Sym II & the Ode & you know it … in these three works I have shewn myself.”

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