Elgar’s deconstruction of the belle époque

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Elgar’s deconstruction of the belle époque by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.jpehs.co.uk/publications/elgars-deconstruction-of-the-belle-epoque/.

Elgar’s deconstruction of the belle époque

Published as J. P. E. Harper-Scott. ‘Elgar’s deconstruction of the Belle époque: Interlace Structures and the Second Symphony’. In Elgar Studies, edited by J. P. E. Harper-Scott and Julian Rushton, 172–219. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. © Cambridge University Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Click to access harper_scott_9780521861991c06_p172-219.pdf

Abstract and summary

My contribution to Elgar Studies is an analytical and philosophical study of Elgar’s Second Symphony. The work is often read as a lullaby to empire, the famous ‘Spirit of Delight’ that Elgar’s quotation from Shelley imputes to the opening bars being presented at the end of the symphony in lachrymose, pink and orange sunset colours.

This essay examines the nature of Elgar’s imperialism, drawing on Bernard Porter’s reading of the class variation inherent to nineteenth-century experience of Britain’s international role. For people of Elgar’s class (lower-middle), empire was not the dominant ideology, and he probably came to his enthusiasm for empire – whatever form that took – as a result of his marriage to an upper-middle-class wife. Empire is certainly a theme of this symphony, but not in the way one might casually suppose. Along with the Spirit of Delight Elgar presents what I call a Spirit of Decay, a theme presented in tonal and dramatic opposition to the symphony’s opening and closing idea. It may stand for whatever threatens to undermine the Delight of the other theme – e.g. a social revolution that threatens imperial cohesion.

I examine the tonal structure that results from the interaction of these elements of Delight and Decay both in the light of recent interpretations of ‘the second practice of nineteenth-century tonality’ and in its relation to an interlaced tonal structure that Elgar probably learnt from Wagner (see here on my study of interlace structures in the Ring). The interlace structure, a highly distinctive contribution to symphonic process, is derived ultimately from medieval decorative patterns, which leads me to pursue a reading of the symphony alongside Beowulf. As a final interpretative element, I add Heidegger’s notion of ‘falling’, an individual’s failure to take responsibility for self-formation (which is instead delegated to das Man, ‘the they’ – the process parallels the subject’s habit of viewing itself from the position of what Žižek would call the big Other). Elgar’s symphony chooses a middle course between Delight and Decay, between bourgeois society and revolution, denying the power or right of either to define an individual course of action. Once more it seems that Elgar’s traditional liberal and Tory critics have missed the radical nature of what he is saying.

This is the abstract published on RILM:

Offers a hermeneutic reading of Elgar’s Second Symphony, adding to Lawrence Kramer’s ‘hermeneutic windows’ a fourth, ‘mimetic’ window, which is based on an alignment of Heidegger’s philosophy of being with Schenker’s music-analytic system. It considers the role played by literary and musical allusions in the symphony, and the work’s relationship to British imperialism. In a detailed analysis of the music, it draws parallels between Elgar’s structural method and the medieval narrative structure of interlace, as demonstrated in Beowulf, and by exploring the intersection of that archetype with Schenker’s Ursatz (which in this symphony is stretched over four movements in a single span) and Heidegger’s discussion of falling, it concludes that Elgar’s view of his historical and cultural situation neither affirms nor dismisses any of the prevailing impulses of the period, whether conservative or progressive.


Link to full-text PDF.


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