I’ve just spent a pleasant weekend literally centuries away from the gloom and corruption of our own times, preparing a talk for the Elgar Society on his early oratorio, Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf. Not that Olaf’s times were any less gloomy or corrupt than today’s, but distance lends enchantment to what would have depressed me mightily if I’d lived in tenth-century Norway. And some of the music’s pretty good, if a bit shouty.
I’ve had great fun with it, pointing out how extraordinary it was that the devout – or devoutish – Christian Edward Elgar should have gone for this subject. Olaf Trygvason was a monster, who set ravenous wolves on his enemies, locked the doors and burned them alive in their dining halls, heaped burning coals on the stomach of one of his captives so that it ‘burst asunder’, and put a lugworm into the mouth of another to eat him up from the inside. All this in order to convert them to Christianity – he’s celebrated in Norway as the one who brought them to the one true faith. ‘Embrace Jesus or we’ll slit your throat.’ It all sounds a bit Talibanish to me. But there we are – different times, different ways. Who are we to judge?
Elgar certainly didn’t; but then he didn’t know the full story, only a bowdlerised version that he got from Longfellow. I went back to the original source: one of the old Norse sagas, Heimskringla (in translation, of course). I’d come across this earlier in connexion with my research into the 19thcentury Orcadian Samuel Laing, who made the first English version of it. (An article on him will appear in my next book, of mainly old essays, entitled Britain Before Brexit. Reserve your copy now.) And my more recent interest in all things Scandinavian – what with living there with a Scandi woman – gave me, I thought, a special expertise; together with my historical knowledge of the late 19thcentury British literary context of Elgar’s piece. That will form the main subject of my talk, not the music. I’m nervous of discussing music with (mostly) musicians. I can’t even read a score.
I also discovered an unfinished opera on the same subject by Edvard Grieg – well worth listening to (on the Erato label). That’s a bit shouty, too.
But not as shouty as I feel about the British scene just now. I’m so glad to be here in Sweden! And relieved that Sweden – or ‘Swithiod’, as it was in Olaf’s time – has left its Nordic noir phase behind.
(My problem now is finding out how to ‘Zoom’ my talk, and the audiovisual Powerpoint presentation that accompanies it, from the Swedish fastness in which I’m living. But we do have WiFi. Any advice, technocrats?)