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CLASSICAL  February 2010

CLASSICAL February 2010

Subject:

Elgar Enigmas - Book Review

From:

Roger Hecht <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 24 Feb 2010 18:27:27 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (109 lines)

[ Read online: http://www.classical.net/music/books/reviews/1601457863a.php ]

The Elgar Enigmas: A Musical Mystery
By Simon Boswell
Booklocker.com, Inc.
2009, 488 pages

Music lovers know that Edward Elgar's famous orchestral work, Enigma
Variations, is named for a hidden theme that runs through the work along
with the main one.  They also know that Elgar died without revealing
what the theme was, leaving behind a cottage industry of solution
manufacturing that persists to this day.  Elgar loved puzzles, and this
isn't the only one he left behind.  All the variations of Enigma but one
contain initials of their subjects, e.g., 'CAE' is Caroline Alice Elgar,
the composer's wife.  The exception is believed to depict a woman Elgar
for one reason or another decided not to name (there are several theories).
Another mysterious reference appears at the beginning of his Violin
Concerto: "Herein is enshrined the soul of ....." Whose soul?  His wife's?
Or someone else's?

Elgar was a prominent but maddeningly secretive composer, and it is the
air of mystery about him that Simon Boswell seized upon for his second
novel (after The Seven Symphonies: A Finnish Murder Mystery).  The book
starts innocently enough.  Psychologist Pandora Bell, recently dumped
by her boyfriend and passed over for a promotion in favor of a man she
has no respect for, is seeking cheer from an informal gathering for
snacks and drinks (many) at the home of friends.  Since no recently
created single can attend such an event without meeting a hoped for
future mate, "Pan meets Ron," quite informally as it turns out, on her
friends' apartment balcony overlooking the city lights.  Upon learning
that Ron Chatterton is a musician, she tells him of a 13-year old musical
savant that she's hoping to study named Caroline Alice Lawtham (the same
first two names as Elgar's wife, so already, you know something's up).
Since Pan knows little about music and Alice is autistic, Ron's musical
expertise could prove invaluable.  Would he accompany her to the girl's
house?  Ron is intrigued-by Alice and Pandora-and agrees to go.

In the process of getting acquainted with the girl, Ron plays an aria
from one of Mozart's Italian operas on the piano.  A half-hour later,
Alice plays the same piece, accurately to the last note, while singing
in a quasi-Italian dialect.  She plays several other pieces, too, all
with technique Ron found stunning, if unconventional.  Ron is eager to
work with Alice, but he must proceed carefully.  Taking notes or using
a recorder would upset the girl, so he installs a MIDI hookup to her
piano that allows him to record all her key strokes and produce a digital
score.

Enter David Powys Hughes, England's most famous living conductor. 
Sir David is a condescending irritant and a womanizer who shows interest
in Pandora, but Ron shows him a CD of Alice's work anyway.  To the
conductor's amazement, one of the pieces is a completion of the first
movement of Elgar's Third Symphony.  Not the one Anthony Payne produced,
but a new rendition, even closer to Elgar's style, so much so that it
could have been written by the composer himself.  Powys Hughes soon
learns that, Alice-or is it Edward?-is in the process of completing her
(his?) own version of Elgar's Third Symphony, one he will conduct to
acclaim.  Elgar is such a national figure in England that for many years
his picture was on the 20-pound British note, so it is major news when
the country's most prominent conductor insists that an autistic savant
is channeling the country's most prominent composer.  When the matter
comes to the attention of skeptic Dominic Querne, whose passion is to
refute supernatural frauds and fakes, the battle lines are drawn: Alice
Lawtham: phenomenon or hoax?

From here the story becomes a marvel of delineation, with so many important
characters making up the puzzle that it is remarkable how Boswell develops
them all so well.  Along the way, we encounter coincidences, composing,
technology, electronics, coding, religion, hauntings, history, sailing,
seances (hosted by a medium whose name Elgarians will recognize), and a
bizarre email exchange.  The story even takes on, with quite proper glee,
the one mystery Elgar biographers treat like a mine field-whether or not
Elgar was loyal to his 9-years-senior wife.  The whole thing lays out
like a tapestry and comes to a conclusion with the precise timing of a
fine weave.  I can picture Boswell diagramming his plot on a wall before
writing.  How else could he keep it straight?  That it never feels
diagrammed or leaves the reader confused is a triumph of storytelling.

Do you need to know Elgar the man to appreciate this book?  No, though
interest helps.  To an extent, Edward Elgar plays the role of the hidden
theme in The Elgar Enigmas.  What he said about his Enigma Variations
-- "through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes,' but
is not played....the chief character is never on the stage"-applies here.
For that reason Maestro Sir David Powys Hughes intersperses several
interesting essays on Elgar into the story.  Boswell did this sort of
thing with Sibelius in his Seven Symphonies, but the Sibelius material
had a bit of the adjunct about it-so much so that Boswell advised the
reader that he/she could skip some of it without losing the story.  Not
so here.  Fortunately, Elgar was a fascinating character.  Boswell writes
well about him, and it is fun to read it.  (I'll leave it to the most
informed of Elgarians to find any inconsequential errors.)

Like Seven Symphonies, The Elgar Enigmas is in some ways a descendent
of the best of Wilkie Collins's breadth of plotting and Agatha Christie's
sharp turns.  Its nicely flowing prose is tighter and less sprawling
than Collins, more literate than Christie, and mercifully devoid of the
self-indulgent mannerisms that make so much modern fiction tiresome.
The result is a terrific read for anyone interested in music and a must
for Elgarians.

For information about the book and the author, plus a few links, see
www.elgarenigmas.com.

Roger Hecht

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