Elgar: child of dreams, by Jerrold Northrop Moore

The wellspring of a composer's inspiration
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The Independent Culture

Exactly 20 years ago, Jerrold Northrop Moore produced (at 800-plus pages) the most meaty of all Elgar biographies. Edward Elgar: a Creative Life was Moore's sixth book on the composer; this is his 10th, while his Edward Elgar: Letters of a Lifetime remains definitive.

Exactly 20 years ago, Jerrold Northrop Moore produced (at 800-plus pages) the most meaty of all Elgar biographies. Edward Elgar: a Creative Life was Moore's sixth book on the composer; this is his 10th, while his Edward Elgar: Letters of a Lifetime remains definitive.

In this 200-page monograph, he sums up, and even briefly elaborates, the themes of his full-scale biography. For the student or music enthusiast, there are nuggets galore. As a study in concision, it is both entertaining and (occasionally) infuriating. Only after half a dozen pages does one feel at ease with its oblique turns of phrase. From then on, it's plain sailing, and highly illuminating. The opening reads like a prose poem - surely apt, given that the stuff of dreams is central to Moore's thesis.

He argues that Elgar's music is rooted in the Midlands countryside (an accepted view, albeit overlain by the author's preoccupation with English "pastoral vision"). And he suggests that Elgar's melodic and harmonic "sequences" (the locus classicus being the First Symphony's opening tune) drew ideas from the contours of a tune or motto conceived in boyhood and resurfacing, amid a creative crisis, in his 1907 suite, The Wand of Youth. This "Broadheath" fragment, even in its key (G major), supplied the bedrock of Elgar's whole compositional approach, from the age of 10 onwards.

Far from fanciful, this thesis rings true. Moore reiterates it, constantly drawing the reader back to the wellsprings of Elgar's inspiration. There are fascinating analyses of the great oratorios ( The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, The Kingdom) and all four completed concertos and symphonies (Moore rejects any posthumous completion of the Third).

Few points in the book - that childhood memory of 1867 apart - capture Elgar's immersion in countryside better than his cycling in 1902/3 to bird-infested, willow-lined Longdon March, south of Malvern. There he distilled his almost operatic delineation of Judas in The Apostles.

Elgar did "outsiders" well, and that area of Worcestershire is one of Middle England's most desolate patches. What emerged was a musical gloom outbidding not just all Elgar, but most of Wagnerian music drama, too. With typical curiosity and luck, Elgar stumbled upon - and used - a key Old Testament quotation found while visiting a hidden church in the next village.

Moore does not address the issue of "Germanness" in Elgar's music. Nor, though coming from the perspective of a perceptive English American, does he prise out the "Englishness". But every single thing he says has a scrupulously precise meaning. You can take it or leave it, but it's worth persevering with the argument. The book is admirably proofed, well-indexed, pocket-sized and beautifully presented. I found it a goldmine.

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