Elgaaaaaaargh! But hear this…

I can’t help it: I’ve tried to like Elgar, I really have. You know how it is, when everyone else loves something and you, isolated in your solitary dislike of that same thing, feel you’re missing something important, something valuable, something worthwhile.

What is it that I don’t like ? Its bombast, its ponderous harmonic language ? Its comparative lack of rhythmic sophisticaion compared to, say, someone like Walton ? I find it difficult to define what it is about the music that turns me off; perhaps this says more about me than it does about the music. But I’ve tried: I just find it all rather tiresome, and done much better by, well, Walton. And any composer who goes to such lengths as to get himself photgraphed on his deathbed whilst still alive clearly has issues, as well as too much regard for their own posterity than is perhaps healthy.

However, one piece has made me reconsider: his hauting ‘Owls: an Epitaph,’ which I saw on BBC4′ s ‘Elgar: the Man behind the Mask’ back in November. Here, at last, something completely unexpected from Elgar: evocative, small-scale, harmonically troubled, uncertain.

It’s quite unlike Elgar the Great Symphonist, the composer of The Dream of Gerontius or the Cello Concerto. The piece almost tip-toes forward hesitantly, as though unsure of its footing.

A quick trawl through elgar.org reveals Elgar writing in a letter that the piece is “only a fantasy and means nothing. It is in a wood at night evidently and the recurring ‘Nothing’ is only an owlish sound.” But if it is just a meditation on the idea of nothing, it certainly is a highly condensed and dissonant rumination that perhaps is itself significantly more than just ‘nothing.’

I live and learn. I still don’t much like the other works: but here’s something I do like.

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