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ELGAR - Child Of Dreams

Jerrold Northrop Moore

Faber and Faber Limited, London 2004


ISBN 0-571-22337-0


I have eagerly anticipated Jerrold Northrop Moore's latest book on Elgar, having been a very keen admirer of his for many years. His erudition and musicianship are almost without equal in the sphere of understanding and insight into Elgar's music. Indeed, his scholarship has been so profound and exhaustive that many of his previous works may be considered inaccessible to the general public. This is not to deny their excellence, but simply to say that they are so thorough and meticulous that their length may put off the casual reader. This is a criticism that certainly could not be applied to this small volume of 202 pages (index excluded).

One is familiar with Moore's work from the LP reissues of Elgar's own 78 recordings which included his book Elgar, A Life in Pictures. Subsequent to that are his larger tomes, such as Elgar a Creative Life and Elgar and his publishers, the latter a two-volume set of great interest to the Elgar scholar. I have also had the chance to hear Moore speak and it was intriguing to hear how as a young man he became so enthralled with Elgarís music that he left his native New England and travelled to Old England to see the country which Elgar's music had so poignantly evoked. He was lucky; he came at a time when many people were still alive who had known Elgar directly and were obviously keen to tell Moore, then a very young man, about him. It is for this reason that we must accept that Moore has unique insight into what made Elgar tick. This, his latest book, is a more convenient size for reading on the bus ... however, smaller scale does not necessarily translate into greater accessibility for the general reader.

This book is not a conventional biography of the composer in the same way as is Elgar A Creative Life or any of the other biographies such as those by Kennedy, McVeagh and Young (to name but a few). In the foreword Moore claims that "the book links the composer to his creative landscape in a new way. It is the outcome of 50 yearsí thought and reflection. In its pages Elgar is revealed for the first time as a pastoral visionary to set beside Shakespeare, Milton, Turner and Samuel Palmer". Whatever one might think of these allusions, there is certainly very little emphasis in the book on the conventional "retired Colonel" image of Elgar.

Moore commences with an idyllic snapshot of Elgar's childhood and the short-lived migration of the Elgar family from Worcester to Broadheath which coincided with Elgar's birth. Although the Elgar family returned to Worcester when Elgar was only two years old, Moore, somewhat fancifully one might feel, considers that the influence of the countryside was already set in stone in Elgar's make-up. The family briefly returned to the country from time to time and during one of these trips in 1867 Elgar wrote what Moore refers to as his "Broadheath tune". This simple tune, written by a child of ten, assumes enormous significance in Moore's mind, and he feels that it has a pervasive influence in much of Elgar's music. Whether or not one feels that he gives this tune too much emphasis is a matter of opinion.

The main body of the book, all in one continuous chapter, concerns the analysis of the music and Moore's attempts to link this with the psyche of Elgar at the particular time of composition, illuminating Elgar's inherently introspective nature and self-doubt. He also goes into great detail about the influence of the countryside and the places where Elgar lived when writing his great music. Some of these influences I consider to be a little over-elaborated. Another key theme in the book is the significance of keys and musical progressions - for example, Moore comments on the significance of the key of A flat at the beginning of The Apostles, being chosen by Elgar intentionally (sub-consciously perhaps) to be as far away as possible from the key of D as used in the Romanza variation of the Enigma Variations.

The casual reader who picks up this book will also have to contend with Moore's somewhat unusual musical analyses of Elgar's works. These are not set out conventionally but rather use allusions, particularly to what he considers to be Elgar's influences at the time. I found some of these rather hard going and would have preferred a more traditional analysis. However, there are many books which cover Elgar's music and it was clearly not Moore's intention to duplicate these efforts. Rather, he is constantly striving to get inside Elgar's complex personality and analyse the music from this perspective: a sort of musical psychiatrist? I do not feel that he always succeeds but he certainly provides insight into Elgarís composition. One wonders what Elgar himself would have thought about this book and the conclusions drawn, and whether he would have been amused to see some of the influences that Moore attributed to some of the works ...

In the end, I found this an extremely informative and interesting book, even if some of the passages were occasionally rather difficult to swallow. I'm sure that readers of Moore's other books on Elgar will be extremely keen to get their hands on this small volume. However, there is a danger that the general reader will be somewhat bemused by many of the passages and will end up with a rather confusing picture of Elgar as a rather capricious character, at times both neurotic and hypochondriacal. Thankfully, Moore goes out of his way to counter the 'conventional view' of Elgar as the patriotic, tub-thumping would-be Edwardian aristocrat by setting great emphasis on the effect that the countryside had on Elgar and how that became infused into his music. I consider this association with and inspiration of the countryside to be paramount in Elgar's music and welcome the lack of emphasis on Elgar the Edwardian patrician. One is so used now to seeing the picture of Elgar as a man in his sixties in the 1920s and 1930s, epitomising the retired Edwardian colonel; the image of Elgar standing by his bicycle with the Malvern hills behind on the front-cover of this book is deeply refreshing. This is Elgar in vigorous middle age and at the height of his powers, as he cycled through the Herefordshire and Worcestershire countryside to the far flung hamlets and picturesque valleys, marshes and woods from which he was to derive so much of his inspiration.

Moore finishes with a wonderfully poignant paragraph which I will quote in full. "The country had filled Elgarís music as it had filled the greatest English art. It is a pastoral vision reaching back through Samuel Palmer and Turner and Constable, through Keats and Coleridge and Wordsworth, through Shakespeare and Chaucer and the long horizontal lines of English churches and cathedrals, perhaps to the misty heritage of King Arthur about in Tintagel. This was a heritage that shaped Elgar and his music, and that touches his musicís audience still". In this book, Moore has made a compelling argument for this predominantly pastoral view of Elgar and I feel that he has succeeded.

Em Marshall

see also review by Ian Lace



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