Archive for portrait of elgar

Separating composers’ lives from their music

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

This is very difficult, isn’t it? We really want the composers whose work we admire to be admirable on a personal level too, even though we have no right to expect them to be any different from the rest of us. Speaking for myself, I’m afraid their perceived personalities do affect my ability to enter wholeheartedly into their music. I’m not happy about this: even though I reject all that old structuralist stuff about the sanctity of the text, as if music didn’t have a human creator behind it, I find myself quite conflicted over some works that I would otherwise love, because some reported awfulness in the composer gets in the way.

Just as one example, because I have the book to hand here, Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Elgar refers to him as an “often dislikeable man, a flawed human being but a blazing genius as a composer”.

I think very few great composers are or were “nice” people, however lovely their music. Beethoven was notoriously volatile and moody (well, he was deaf), I’m sure I’d have found Mozart rather tiresomely rude, Wagner was probably tolerable as long as the subject of the conversation was how great his music was, Schoenberg’s difficulties with just about everyone are legendary (some of his replies to American students who wrote to him about his music are dripping with sarcasm), and although Otto Klemperer said Stravinsky was always courteous and polite, that doesn’t seem to have extended to anyone he regarded as his social inferior.

This can be explained by the need of a composer to exclude distractions, I suppose.

Sir Arthur Sullivan was a very easy man to get on with, by all accounts. He made friends easily and would do anything to avoid an argument. Some composers went to extraordinary lengths to avoid distractions (think of Mahler in his hut being driven mad by cowbells, finally demanding that they be removed), Sullivan would compose at his desk, with a large gin, away from the piano, pen in one hand and cigarette in the other, and hold conversations with people who came and went all at the same time.

I’ve always found musicians (great and small) to be very pleasant. The one exception was Sally Beamish. She was having a work premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and was very off-hand when I attempted to talk to her. She also, when she was a mere violinist, ballsed up a piece of mine back in 1985.

As a result I’ve ignored her music as much as possible. Petty, I know.

Sir Colin Davis conducts Elgar’s “Nimrod”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Variation IX from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (dedicated “To my friends pictured within”) is entitled “Nimrod” and is a tribute to A.J. Jaeger of Novello, Elgar’s publisher.

Michael Kennedy sums up the piece in his excellent book Portrait of Elgar:

Elgar admits that “something ardent and mercurial, in addition to the slow movement, would have been needed to portray the character and temperament of A.J. Jaeger.” Then follow these important words: “The variation is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred. It will be noticed that the opening bars are made to suggest the slow movement of the eighth sonata (Pathétique).”

Elgar had written to Jaeger and said he was “sick of music” and was “going to give it up”. Jaeger wrote a “screed” in reply, “all about my ingratitude for my great gifts,” and suggested he should visit Elgar for a talk. They went on a long walk and “he preached me a regular sermon, pointing out that Beethoven, faced with his worries, had written still more beautiful music – and that is what you must do”.

[Nimrod] has become a traditional requiem for commemorating the dead; to this use of it there has been some objection, but, in appropriate cases, what could be better than this intimate record of a real friendship?

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