LETTER : Bringing Elgar's sketches to life

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The Independent Online
From Mr Humphrey Burton

Sir: Nobody will be more curious than me to hear Elgar's sketches for his Third Symphony in performance (Letters, 3 March). I've had a special interest in Elgar's music since producing Ken Russell's Monitor film in the early Sixties and in 1978, when I was head of BBC TV's music and arts department, I obtained the then Director General's blessing - and that of Elgar's trustees - to have the sketches performed in a television feature. I announced this plan in a lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Arts.

Word came that Sir Adrian Boult, then 89, disapproved of the project. Boult had been the BBC's director of music in the 1930s when the BBC commissioned Elgar to write a third symphony. He was later present at Broadcasting House when Elgar's daughter handed over the unfinished sketches to Sir John Reith. His authority was difficult to challenge.

A second communication, from the musicologist Christopher Kent took, away my appetite for the fight. Kent did his PhD on Elgar's compositional methods. He had already emphasised that, in his view, it would be "ill- advised and morally questionable" for anybody to tinker (Elgar's words) with the sketches. Privately he informed me that his detailed studies revealed a wretched state of affairs. Elgar's inspiration was drying up, it seems. Only a quarter of the sketches were written on 1930s manuscript paper. The rest of the material came from deep in the composer's bottom drawer - fragments of unfinished compositions dating back three decades and more. To have them played, I was made to feel, would prove deeply embarrassing to the posthumous dignity of England's greatest composer.

The case is puzzling in the extreme. Two contemporary witnesses (Fred Gaisberg of HMV and the violinist Billy Reed) describe the symphony's four movements in some detail -after a private violin and piano run-through. Elgar's improvisatory keyboard skills would certainly have played a part in forming their judgements. But another witness, the writer Basil Maine, reported later that the experience was "so clouded and fleeting that it could not possibly be repeated by means of the sketches alone".

My project was shelved. So I shall be listening to Anthony Payne's Radio 3 Elgar documentary on 19 March with an intense curiosity, mingled, however, with a certain sense of unease that Elgar's intellectual bones are, after all, to be disturbed.

Yours sincerely,


London, W14

6 March