Elgar for Lefties

A very fine talk yesterday at the Elgar Society Yorkshire Branch (of which I’m Hon Treasurer): Rachel Cowgill on what she called ‘Elgar’s War Requiem’ – which is what it is. Unfortunately it’s formally entitled The Spirit of England, which has put people off it in the past, assuming it’s a patriotic tub-thumper. It’s very far from that; more a sad reflexion on sacrifice, with its final section – ‘For the Fallen’ – one of the most beautiful and emotional choral pieces Elgar ever composed. I’ve written about it myself; but Professor Cowgill added so much more to what I already knew.

It’s yet another nail in the ‘Elgar as imperialist’ coffin, which I’ve been trying to bang nails into for years: viz. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=hhCfzoqaLK0C&pg=PA19&lpg=PA19&dq=Elgar+and+the+Empire+%22Bernard+Porter. (Land of Hope and Glory – not Elgar’s words – has a lot to answer for.)

But the piece also I think undermines his reputation as a religious – specifically Roman Catholic – composer. Catholicism provided the texts for some of his early works: especially, of course, his great masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, though I can’t help feeling that the very human Gerontius story moved him more; and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that his later oratorios indicate a considerable falling-off in religious inspiration. Certainly, what faith he may have had was already growing very thin well before the Great War, which killed it off almost completely. The Spirit of England contains not a single reference to religion, at least in the text (Rachel Cowgill pointed us to some musical references back to Gerontius); and is inspired entirely by humanity. Listen to that last section; without weeping, if you can.

So, a reason why it’s OK for an agnostic anti-imperialist to love Elgar’s music: as well as church architecture (see below, March 2). George Bernard Shaw, of course – no Tory he – was a great fan.


The discussion afterwards touched on why Elgar called it the ‘Spirit of England’ rather than ‘of Britain’. I suggested, waspishly, that the ‘spirit’ or at any rate the ‘image’ of Scotland is – or was – rather different from the one he attributed to England: more aggressive and triumphalist; and so didn’t fit in with the music he was composing. It’s certainly true that Scotland was in many ways the most ‘imperialist’ of the four British nations in the 18th and 19th centuries; though that didn’t tie in with her self-projection – as a colonial ‘victim’ – at the time of the recent independence referendum. My friend the Anglo-Scot John Mackenzie has written about this.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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