MUSIC / A rousing clash of symbols: Elgar, icon of Englishness and suitable case for psychobiography, is standing in the way of Elgar, the composer, says Bayan Northcott

In one of those innumerable, endlessly recycled anecdotes that seem to compound the life of Edward Elgar, his mother recalled a moment of the summer of 1897 when they paused to contemplate the Malverns. 'I said: Oh] Ed, look at the lovely old Hill. Can't we write some tale about it? . . . And in less than a month he told me Caractacus was all cut and dried.' The resulting cantata first heard the following year is more patriotic than pantheistic, but retains at its centre a brief Woodland Interlude depicting 'the forest near the Severn - Morning'. Thirty-six years later, this exquisite miniature was to become the last live music Elgar would ever hear, when the Gramophone Company wired a recording session directly to his deathbed - a fitting finale, Elgarians might feel, who cherish his music above all for its evocation of the English countryside.

We are likely to be hearing a lot about British musical landscapes this year, since the 60th anniversary of Elgar's death on 24 February will be followed by that of Holst on 25 May, Delius on 10 June, and by the 60th birthdays, on 15 July and 8 September respectively, of Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies - two composers increasingly heard as following the same tradition. There is something of a double irony here, since the latter pair were widely perceived as Continentally inspired avant-gardists when they first arrived some 35 years ago - an impression heightened by Davies's virulent early attacks on the school of Vaughan Williams. Yet some of their recent scores seem more directly generated by aspects of landscape than almost anything by their predecessors: patterns of rock strata, perhaps recalled from his Lancashire boyhood, surely lie behind the grinding layer-textures of Birtwistle's Earth Dances, while Davies has spoken of modelling some of his symphonic forms on the very contours of his Orkney fastness.

Just to complicate the picture, it should not be forgotten that the earlier composers were equally excited by the metropolitan scene. The cosmopolitan Delius's great city was, admittedly, Paris, but Elgar's Cockaigne and Holst's Hammersmith were both London tributes - to say nothing of Vaughan Williams's second symphony. Yet when Delius draws a serene dawn music from the phrases of a Lincolnshire folk-song in Brigg Fair or Holst outlines the bleak Dorset vistas in Egdon Heath, it is difficult to resist a profound identification of certain compositional processes with a precise spirit of place.

What remains more problematic is quite how such a widely perceived identification works in Elgar. Apart from the possible influence of certain long-forgotten Victorian church composers, the sources of his musical idiom were even more Continental than those of Davies or Birtwistle: Schumann above all, enriched by Brahms, Dvorak, a little Wagner and Richard Strauss; leavened by a lighter French element out of Delibes and Saint-Saens, and a dash of Tchaikovsky. And though Hans Keller, for one, detected some distinctively English modal traits deep in the music, Elgar took little obvious interest in the folk songs that were being collected, or the Tudor church music that was being rediscovered, during his lifetime. Nor, apart from the Woodland Interlude or the evocation of Shallow's Worcestershire orchard in Falstaff, do many items in his catalogue seem to be named after, or explicitly inspired by, particular landscapes in what has come to be known as Elgar country.

Of course, we know from the accounts of friends and from his carefully preserved cycling maps that he explored every lane and backwater in the Gloucester-Worcester-Hereford triangle; that he felt, as he penned the last pages of The Dream of Gerontius in his retreat at Birchwood in the summer of 1900, that 'the trees are singing my music - or have I sung theirs?'; that he wanted the evanescent trio sections of the First Symphony's scherzo to sound 'like something you hear down by the river', and so on. The salient question remains how far such associations are genuinely encoded in the notes and how far they have been subsequently read back into the music out of our ever-increasing knowledge of his personality, life and times.

Nor is this merely a matter of nature evocation. For what, by now, do we not know about Elgar? No previous composer, with the exception of Wagner, has ever been so fully documented, and few enough since. Granted, he was born into a Victorian culture that placed an exceptional value on memory, on the souvenir, on storing up golden moments; granted his canny instinct for self-projection seems to have attracted a steady stream of friends with diaries and cameras ever at the ready. But as the memoirs, picture- books and editions of letters have tumbled from the press, they have at least been matched by earnest psychological studies of his contradictory character; by socio-economic investigations of his upwardly mobile urges and professional rivalries; by politico-cultural diagnoses of his career as bard of a dying imperialism. One has heard Elgar performances in which the music has almost seemed to sink under the weight of its extra-musical significances; one has met Elgarians who apparently regard the output as a mere soundtrack to a perpetual reliving of the joys and sorrows of his biography.

None of this might matter if, as in the cases of such contemporaries as Mahler and Debussy, investigations of the psychological dramas or extra-musical affinities had gone hand in hand with genuinely searching analysis of the scores themselves. Yet one sometimes suspects that the Elgar cult is a conspiracy to discourage anything so purely musical, so technical - and the upcoming Radio 3 Composer of the Week programmes, with Elgar experts rhapsodising from the birthplace, anatomising his standing in Edwardian society and so on, look like conforming to type. Not that Elgar himself often let on about his compositional procedures; such talk would hardly have consorted with his self-image of spontaneous, Schumannesque dreamer of dreams. And in so far as he hoped to reach the broadest audience, his music often had to pursue the art that conceals art. A simple instance: one can listen to the hushed poetry of the 'Slumber Song' in his first Wand of Youth suite a dozen times without noticing that its underlying bass line comprises a sequence of just three pitches, regularly stated 18 times.

Yet once this strict scheme is noticed, it only serves to heighten one's admiration for the fluent skill with which phrasing and harmony are varied within it. For all his pretence of autodidactic ignorance or gentlemanly unconcern, Elgar evidently maintained a formidable intellectual grasp of what he was doing. During the final illness, the Malvern architect Troyte Griffith - he of the rumbustious seventh Enigma variation - recalled exclaiming of the slow movement of the String Quartet that it was as good as Beethoven. Elgar responded simply: 'Yes it is, and there is something in it that has never been done before.' When Griffith asked what, the reply was: 'Nothing you would understand, merely an arrangement of notes.'

Neither will one discover what it was from any of the Elgar experts, obsessed as they have been for decades by the more 'human' problems of whether the enigma of the Variations was an actual tune, or a concept such as 'friendship', and just whose was the feminine soul enshrined in the mysterious dedication of the Violin Concerto. Yet the fact that, at the last, Elgar wanted it to be known that one of his apparently most valedictory works harboured a real compositional innovation, suggests what we still owe him. No one could deny the emotional, picturesque or emblematic significance of his music, but a little more attention to the way he put his actual notes together might also reveal a more objective, cogent and, not least, original composer than we have realised.

Radio 3, next Monday-Friday, 9am

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions