x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Elgar - a poster boy for patriotism

The composer Sir Edward Elgar, whose melancholic nostalgia and love for England, inspired music that seems to define the very ideal of Englishness.

Sir Edward Elgar's patriotic Land of Hope and Glory inspired a canon of music that defines Englishness.
Sir Edward Elgar's patriotic Land of Hope and Glory inspired a canon of music that defines Englishness.

Many British expatriates will revel this weekend in a sentimentally patriotic display of flag-waving and sing-a-long-a-Rule-Britannia at the Best of British Gala at Abu Dhabi Classics. A sort of Last Night of the Proms lite, we can expect rousing works played by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Their chests will swell with pride at the thought of the mother country's glorious past: the lost days of the Empire, the stiff-upper-lipped, stoic endurance of hardship, the blitz spirit and the proud sporting of a well-cut suit and a handlebar moustache. In the words of Flanders and Swann's song Patriotic Prejudice: "The English, the English, the English are best / I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest."

In this, they have something - though less than they may imagine - in common with the poster boy for patriotic music, Sir Edward Elgar, a composer whose melancholic nostalgia and love of the "land of hope and glory" were inspiration for a canon of music that seems to define the very ideal of Englishness. For this he is, of course, despised by many of those who are sensitive to the more unpleasant British traits of jingoism and imperial pride. The trio from his Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, more often performed as Land of Hope and Glory, with its passionately patriotic lyrics by AC Benson, is considered by the right-on and the left-wing to be the nadir of imperialistic awfulness, particularly when belted out by emotional sunburnt expatriates wearing Union Jack bowler hats.

Elgar's case is not helped by the fact that his exquisitely yearning Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, has in the past been the soundtrack to Conservative Party political broadcasts, accompanied by wistful images of the rolling hills of Malvern and cricketers on the village green. It came as little surprise then, that in 2007 - his 150th anniversary and at the height of Labour's politically correct authoritarianism - Britain's most famous composer's portrait was removed from the £20 note, and will finally cease to be legal tender on June 30 this year.

Yet Elgar the man was far from the rabid racist that his detractors would have us believe: it is only with the ease of ignorance that his reputation could be so casually damaged. Certainly he was a man of his time, a Victorian through and through (in spite of living until 1934), with a great pride in his country. But his disgust of injustice and violence belied the words of Land of Hope and Glory - words that he wished (in vain) to have replaced with less nationalistic ones during the First World War.

Unlike many more revered composers, he displayed no anti-semitism - in spite of the uninformed dialogue in Nick Hornby's otherwise excellent script for An Education, in which the Jewish protagonist David comments, "I'm not sure Elgar and the Jews mix very well." Indeed not only did Elgar count several Jewish musicians, patrons and correspondents among his proverbial best friends, but he was also explicit about his distress at the anti-semitic direction of Germany's politics in 1933.

Undeniably, like most of his fellow Edwardians, he was caught up with Imperial fervour in the last years before the Great War of 1914-18, with commissioned works such as the Crown of India Suite, 1911, reflecting the bombastic pre-war mood, but his shock at the carnage of the war nearly broke him. And for all his decorations at the height of his success, his background was a humble one: the son of a piano tuner-turned-music-shop owner and a farm labourer's daughter in Worcestershire, he was a virtually self-taught musician and composer - something that has, over the years, subjected his reputation to an awful lot of intellectual snobbery. It may also have been the reason he indulged his gift for melody at a time when Germany's composers were experimenting with dissonance and theory: being paid five shillings for every polka and quadrille he composed while the band master at the County Lunatic Asylum in Powick would certainly have instilled a strong work ethic in the struggling 22-year-old violinist, as well as a sense of what would please an audience. "I know that there are lots of people who like to celebrate events with music," said Elgar once. "To these people I give tunes."

And what tunes. Whether you feel it should be the British national anthem or filed away as appalling pomposity, there is no denying that Land of Hope and Glory is a cracking tune. "Popular" and "tuneful" may be four-letter words for many music critics, but no one could hear the tragic lilt of the Cello Concerto, the transcendent choir of The Dream of Gerontius or the fragments of his dark, unfinished Third Symphony, elaborated in 1997 by Anthony Payne (and anachronistically played in An Education, set in 1961) and accuse their composer of either mere melody-peddling or jingoism.

These are the works of a sensitive man, whose spells of self-pity and introversion were punctuated with humour, playfulness and a lack of vanity that is rare among composers - a notoriously egotistical bunch. Elgar did not, for example, like Wagner, establish an annual festival to celebrate his own music. Perhaps it's time to celebrate the works - and the man - on their own merits.