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Elgar’s Oratorios: the creation of an epic narrative

By Charles Edward McGuire

Ashgate 2002 339pp Ł52.50

ISBN 0754602710

£52.50 reduced to £50.00 post free in the UK



Textually dense though it may occasionally seem, and necessarily laden with the academic impedimenta of copious footnotes (it began as a doctoral thesis), this is an important contribution to the burgeoning area of Elgar Studies. It places the four oratorios – The Light of Life, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom – in the historical continuum of the British oratorio tradition, demonstrating these works’ independence and novelty of musical and expressive power, and adducing (or limiting or denying) a Wagnerian influence. McGuire also seeks to explore the narrative voice inherent in Elgar’s oratorios and to this end there are numerous musical examples and tables as supporting evidence, such as sample programmes of the Birmingham Festivals and a list of Narration in British Oratorios during the years 1730-1944, dates that obviously fall outside the relevant period but which stand for a comprehensiveness of view. The bibliography is full, the data supportive of McGuire’s arguments.

There is inevitably a strong historical component to the study, one that establishes Handelian precedent, the changing nature of oratorio programmes and the rise of Mendelssohn. There is also a digression on tonic sol fa and its use in British musical education which is pertinent and demonstrates the gradual rise in musical knowledge amongst choirs, though it does make for somewhat discursive reading. He stresses the moral aspect inherent in musical education of this kind as he does equally the nature of the oratorio itself, which he takes some time to attempt to define. It’s inevitable I suppose that he should feel it incumbent on him to do so but definition of this kind is notoriously loose and since his study is predicated on the idea that Gerontius is an oratorio it seems unnecessary to labour the point.

As he notes, the apogee of the oratorio in the British Isles were the years between 1880 and 1899, an imperial sunset that saw a rise in musical education, increased leisure opportunities, a proliferation of Music Festivals and offering greater chances for first – and inevitably in many cases last – performances. The years also witnessed a gradual but definable shift in subject matter from the Old to the New Testament. What set Elgar apart from the mass of oratorio production, he notes, were depth of characterisation, psychological drama, scope and use of musical material, the use of a narrator, leitmotif and the use of "movements." It’s true that Elgar’s control of span in the musical sense was prodigious but some may draw other conclusions here and will certainly not agree to the concept of Elgarian "movements" in the oratorio context. As for the idea of Leitmotif, McGuire contrasts it with the use of representative themes in The Light of Life, a work, incidentally, he considers "traditional" and of which he himself has a traditional opinion, considering it highly limited. Its lack of cohesion, lack of real development – such as there is, is local – the encumbrances of recitative, arias and choruses all point toward what in McGuire’s terms is an old fashioned and flawed work lacking the thread of narrative. The idea of narrative discourse in the oratorio is the heart of McGuire’s argument; he sees its absence as a sign of traditional practice, its presence as a sign of modernity.

He focuses on the libretti as well, analysing to good effect what Elgar didn’t set of Newman’s poem as much as what he did. The analysis of literary narrative tends somewhat to occlude the purely musical narrative – words, bearing the freight and weight of meaning, tend to occupy time that could have been spent on the purely musical aspects of the score. To advance the narrative theory McGuire also produces as ancillary tables little boxes within boxes, like Russian dolls, to emphasise his points. At one point the heading Vivid description narration (two-level) is subjected to a box within a box picture depicting two levels that McGuire calls Audience watches/hears and, well it’s too complicated. Suffice it to say that the obscurantism of some of his arguments is an occasional problem.

When he reaches The Apostles and The Kingdom and their greater sense of Wagnerian procedure his analysis of the construction of the text – who says what, when and how – bears greater fruit. Narration being a greater feature of the Apostles he is able to focus precisely on the text employed and its perceived meaning, though once more I think he loads his text with far too much apparatus to come to swift and decisive judgement. He contrasts for example the text of the Prologue of The Apostles with Isaiah 61: 1-3 and 11 line by line; he has a series of overlapping circles like orbiting planets ostensibly to delineate Levels of Narrative in The Apostles. These sort of things may well be the result of perceived academic necessity but they’re not easy to come to terms with. Still the analysis of The Kingdom, though still clogged by the devices just mentioned, is impressive and it is intriguing for once to consider how an audience actually perceives, or is made to perceive, the narrative rather than merely absorb a performance.

For this and other reasons we have cause to admire the resolute, sometimes dogged, work McGuire has carried out. I think he succeeds best in his analysis of Elgar’s compositional directions, his balancing of text and source material, investigation of the effect a narrative has on the listener, and the broad advance of Elgar’s mastery over form. And that is no small matter.

Jonathan Woolf



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