Spirit of England
* Edward Elgar: The Spirit of England, op. 80
* F. S. Kelly: Elegy for Strings "In Memoriam Rupert Brooke" (1915)
* Ivor Gurney: War Elegy (1920)
* C. H. H. Parry: The Chivalry of the Sea (1916)
* Lilian Elkington: Out of the West (1921)
Susan Gritton, soprano
Andrew Kennedy, tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/David Lloyd-Jones
Dutton CDLX 7172 (DDD) Total time: 69:00
Summary for the Busy Executive: Singing the pity of war.
The horror of the First World War spawned some great art, both from
its participants and from the older generation as well. The younger
artists (Hemingway, Ravel and Les Six in France, Weill, and Hindemith,
for example) tended to throw over the traces of the Nineteenth Century,
while the grand old men (Elgar, Parry, Chesterton, Kipling, even Beerbohm)
lamented the loss of the past.
Artistically, England has usually been an anomaly, in that it is
fundamentally conservative. Most of its Romantics -- Wordsworth and
Coleridge, for example -- stressed that they had done nothing new, even
as they helped create a cultural revolution. Byron considered himself
a disciple of Alexander Pope. The shapers of British musical Modernism
-- Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Walton (Britten's the exception) --
seemed to feel uncomfortable with their most radical statements. Vaughan
Williams joked at his own expense over his grinding Fourth Symphony, and
Walton, in the music after his Stravinskian Facade and Hindemithian early
concerti, paid homage to both Sibelius and Elgar.
For me, Elgar stands as the great composer of the Great War. Undoubtedly,
it affected him. One reads letters of his anger and distress over the
killing -- most memorably, the slaughter of horses -- at the Front. In
the cello concerto especially, one hears deep sorrow over the waste of
promising life and the blight on the future which is the cost of every
Finished in 1917, The Spirit of England -- its title alone, that is --
sounds like the tub-thumping jingoism that has tarred Elgar's reputation
to this day. Elgar may have looked like Colonel Blimp, but the resemblance
ended there. Indeed, the piece almost never got written because Elgar
rejected certain lines as over-the-top xenophobia, and self-congratulatory
besides. He did manage to accommodate those lines to his conscience,
however -- and not the other way around -- and the work proceeded. Elgar
set three poems by the Georgian poet Laurence Binyon, a devoted fan of
the composer's, and this resulted in a relationship that bore further
artistic fruit -- Elgar's music for King Arthur. Elgar sets the opening
lines, "Spirit of England, ardent-eyed," to music that soars, the
nobilmente that he seems to tap into so effortlessly. It could easily
fall flat into smug patriotism, but Elgar's music rarely settles on one
thing. More than most composers, Elgar's music captures the evanescence,
fluidity, and changeability of thought, the "currents of the soul." The
score moves us to apprehension, regret, resolve, all in the space of a
few measures. I confess that the dominant emotion I get from Elgar is
a profound melancholy and sense of loss, and it's the rapid transition
from mood to mood that sends me that signal. Critics, especially those
following E. J. Dent, have tended to dismiss this cantata as mere "war
work," not from the top drawer, as if Beethoven's First Symphony became
dreck because of the Missa Solemnis. Of course Elgar wrote better than
this, and that's what's so amazing, because this work is both so beautiful
and so humane. This, by the way, is the first recording of the piece
as Elgar conceived it, with both a soprano and a tenor soloist.
Unfortunately, the work is so big and so visionary that it dominates the
entire CD. One finds oneself constantly comparing the other works to
it, with good and bad results.
Charles Hubert Parry's Chivalry of the Sea sets a poem by Robert Bridges
commemorating those British sailors lost in the Battle of Jutland.
The choral writing, as superb as you might expect, shows where Vaughan
Williams got much of his early technique. Indeed, parts of Chivalry
wouldn't sound out of place in the younger man's Sea Symphony. Nevertheless,
both the poem and the music try to sell a morally dubious proposition:
that the sailors did not lose their lives in vain and were glad to lose
them, because they were brave. Wars, even necessary wars, always waste
lives for results that aren't worth the cost of those lives. Even one
of those deaths was an enormous waste of the best of us. Whether they
gave their lives willingly (or not) doesn't absolve us. World War I was
fought to "end all wars" -- admittedly, a laudable goal. But the goal
hasn't been achieved by that or any subsequent war, which makes frivolous
wars irresponsibly begun all the more reprehensible. It comes down to
the fact that Parry and Bridges talk about pipe dreams and excuses.
Elgar, on the other hand, talks about tragedy.
Ivor Gurney, one of the great English songwriters, studied with
Parry and Stanford. He was gassed in the war and this, coupled with a
predisposition to mental instability, led to shell-shock and eventually
institutionalization. His War Elegy is the first orchestral work of his
I've heard. Gurney knew combat first-hand. The War Elegy gives off
unrelenting grief. However, Gurney did best in the circumscribed compass
of the song. He tends to get lost in larger structures, and his ideas
seem constricted, struggling to break free into full expression.
Lilian Elkington, a pupil of Bantock, stopped composing when she got
married. Her music rises no higher and sinks no lower than her teacher's.
Out of the Mist honors the Unknown Warrior. A fairly conventional piece,
it lacks anything memorable.
On the other hand, you can mention Frederick Septimus Kelly's Elegy in
almost the same breath as the Elgar. Kelly, an Aussie, studied with
Tovey. He wrote a bunch of "nice" songs suitable for the parish, but
obviously his talent didn't lie there. He went to war and died on the
Western Front in 1916. The Elegy, by far the best work of his I've
heard, was also probably his last: he completed it in hospital as he
recovered from wounds suffered at Galipoli. Kelly dedicated the piece
to the memory of his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke. Kelly was present
at Brooke's burial on a Greek island, and the piece remembers that scene.
Given Kelly's songs, afflicted with the weak-sister chromaticism of
Gounod and Franck, this piece surprises. In evoking Classical Greece,
Kelly comes up with an idiom all his own, caught in the no-man's land
between late Romanticism and early Modernism, and nothing at all like
Tovey. Beautiful, elegiac, it shows a composer who probably would have
grown into a major voice of English music. He and Butterworth may have
counted as England's greatest musical losses of the war.
The Elgar has had previous recordings, notably one led by Alexander
Gibson on Chandos, coupled with the Coronation Ode. It's a very suave
reading, but slightly uninvolved. Lloyd-Jones sings rougher, but he
sings. The Parry and the Kelly receive committed advocacy. I don't
know what could have been done to untangle the Gurney or to make the
Elkington interesting. Nevertheless, recommended.
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