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Elgar And The Press: A Life In Newsprint
By Richard Westwood-Brookes
Published 2019
268 pages
ISBN 978 1798 834 077
Self published

The subtitle of this book “a life in newsprint” might suggest that we are to read another biography of Sir Edward Elgar, a market that is surely already heavily over-subscribed. However, this volume is very far from being another contribution to the saturated collection of lives of the composer, focusing instead almost exclusively on the press reactions to his music and other contributions to public life such as his controversial professorial lectures in Birmingham given in 1905-6. Even so, it might be objected that we already know a great deal about the often prickly relationship between Elgar and the press, not only from the composer’s own letters but also from the coverage of the available material in existing memoirs by friends and contemporaries as well as the works of other authors. In fact, as Richard Westwood-Brookes points out towards the end of this substantial volume, the existing material gives a decidedly slanted picture. Criticisms that appear in print, especially those cited in reference books and chronological explorations of Elgar’s career, have a permanence that is denied to other contemporary writers whose criticisms and contradictions of well-established beliefs and assertions have simply disappeared into the files of dusty newspaper archives. What this book illustrates above all else is that Elgar received a very substantial amount of favourable criticism during his own lifetime which has been overlooked.

The most famous of Elgar’s contemporary critics was of course George Bernard Shaw, who not only used Elgar’s music as a stick with which to beat his immediate predecessors such as Parry and Stanford, but also provoked newspaper debate about what he regarded as shabby treatment of the genius by not only the press but also an indifferent public. But Shaw’s days as a working music critic were very largely past by the time he took up the cudgels on Elgar’s behalf following the performance of the Enigma Variations in 1899. Many of the other critics cited in Richard Westwood-Brookes’s compendium wrote anonymously or under pseudonyms; others, who wrote under their own names, are very largely forgotten today – even Robert Buckley of the Birmingham Gazette, who not only supported Elgar from his earliest days but also penned the first biography of the composer. As the author here observes, these reports are often ephemeral by nature; but at the same time they are often surprisingly detailed and analytical, even extending to comprehensive descriptions of rehearsals where the reporters were clearly present as observers.

Disarmingly, the author here acknowledges that the book is written from the point of view of a journalist rather than a scholar. It is nevertheless usual at this point for a reviewer to assemble a list of errors and omissions, leading to a heartfelt plea for the services of a proof-reader. But apart from occasional missing words (which may well be derived from the source material) and the even more occasional spelling mistake (Reeth for Reith when describing the director of the BBC) I found no significant faults in this area. Perhaps there are points when the author assumes a greater familiarity with the music under discussion that might be desirable for some readers, but for anyone who knows and loves Elgar’s music the references are clearly established. An index might have been welcome for those wishing to see what an individual author might have to say about an individual work – but, as observed, many of these authors were at some pains actually to conceal their identity.

What is revealing in many places is the sheerly contradictory nature of some of the contemporary criticisms. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the second symphony, where Elgar himself observed that the public seemed not to understand the work. The critics seem to have divided into two mutually hostile camps over the consideration of whether the slow second movement should be considered a funeral march or not (as if such considerations really mattered); but nearly all of them seem to have regarded the third movement scherzo as purely a light-hearted jeu d’esprit, with only two making tangential reference to the violent episode where the Westminster Gazette was almost alone in noting “the prominence given to a theme from the first movement of a curiously sinister character which is thundered out by the brass with remarkable effect” – which the similarly anonymous critic of the Musical Standard described as “terrible…in intensity of black import.” This passage seems to have been comprehensively ignored by everyone else reviewing the music; no wonder that Elgar described the audience as “sitting there like a lot of stuffed pigs.”

On the other hand it is clear that, by comparison with the present day when the coverage of classical music in the press has been reduced to the barest minimum, Elgar was extremely fortunate in the amount of attention he received during his lifetime. Some of the critics may have been hacks who were not above filching whole passages of opinions from other writers (in the days before copyright protection), and others may have been hidebound conservatives unwilling to recognise any merit in new compositions; but the overwhelming impression that comes from these pages is a willingness to engage with the composer and his music, in a manner that would be unthinkable today outside the pages of the specialist press. Even an early work like King Olaf receives five whole pages of criticism here; the controversy over the second symphony receives fifteen full pages of citation. Even in the days when newspapers are throwing open their archives on the internet, it would take a casual reader many weeks to amass all this material for themselves; the achievement of Richard Westwood-Brookes in assembling his multitudinous sources (even given the existence of an archive assembled by the composer’s wife) must have been a substantial labour indeed, and a labour of love. I fear that, were he to undertake the collation of material for a similar exercise on behalf of a modern composer, he would find very slim pickings indeed.

The book is published by the author himself, and can be obtained from Amazon at 15.00 in paperback or 4.94 in Kindle format. By comparison with many books on music deriving from academic sources, that is a veritable bargain. Elgar lovers will find much entirely new material to delight them, and that material is interesting not only for the new angles it sheds on the production and performance of the music itself but also on the evolving nature of music journalism over the years.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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