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

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