Review of Let Beauty Awake: Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Literature

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Review of Let Beauty Awake: Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Literature by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Review of Let Beauty Awake: Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Literature (London: Elgar Editions, 2010). Elgar Society Journal 17 no. 1 (2011): 41–3.

This volume, whose material is mostly collected from papers delivered at the Elgar and Vaughan Williams conference at the British Library in November 2008, is dedicated to the memory of Richard Hickox, who died a day after giving an interview at the conference The full interview is included on a bonus CD. Together the essays offer a wide-ranging response to the music of both composers enlivened by the fruitful blending of the insights of some of the leading musicologists in the field with those of non-academics: an entirely admirable practice of the two composer societies who sponsored the event.

The book is arranged under two subheadings, ‘Vaughan Williams and Others’ and ‘Vaughan Williams and the Poets’, reflecting the generally greater focus throughout on that composer. Part 1 opens with Michael Pope’s chapter, which offers suggestive hints on the influence of Parry’s literary choices on the choices made, and genres worked in, by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Pope notes too the reciprocal influence that Elgar had on Parry after he overtook his position in English musical life. Julian Rushton writes in his introduction that Stephen Johnson’s essay, ‘Elgar’s literary choice’, which follows, immediately ‘reaches the heart of the matter’ in this volume. Goes for the jugular, more like. Taking time to reflect illuminatingly on the text-setting of Mahler and Tippett, Johnson examines the benefit of Elgar’s choice to set bad poetry in The Music Makers, Sea Pictures, and The Dream of Gerontius. It will surprise few to hear the poetry of the first two works disdained, but some may bristle at the suggestion that Newman’s famous text is not great literature. Yet it is worth saying: the Pope may beatify who he likes but even had it been available to Newman, he would never have won a Nobel Prize. Johnson shows Elgar creating rousing effects out of Newman’s metrical torpor where it serves a good purpose over a short, energetic span (‘Sanctus fortis’) or creating interest where there is none in the original when not to do so would have been disastrous (‘Praise to the Holiest’). Pointing as it does to some of the best qualities in Elgar’s text-setting (seldom, it must be said, unimpeachable), it is a welcome inclusion in the volume.

It has been remarked that British musicians who served in the First World War appear to have said less about it than their poet colleagues. Expanding on this thought, Andrew Neill argues that Vaughan Williams’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in particular is a musical response to war to rank alongside the poetry of Sassoon and others – suggesting along the way that Elgar’s own musical contribution in the war years may have lacked the insight that his younger compatriot, with authentic experience of that war, was able to bring to bear.

To close part 1, David Owen Norris contributes a typically effervescent essay that was doubtless liberally illustrated at the initial performance. The link with the theme of this volume is one of Elgar’s most ‘literary’ works, Falstaff. Norris too readily accepts the sniffy judgement of this work exemplified by a catastrophically unreflective New York Times review of an Andrew Davis performance in the 1980s, but his conceit that ‘we might reach something more fundamental’ about the piece by stripping away the orchestration (as in playing or hearing Karg-Elert’s transcription for piano) is interesting – if, for me, completely unpersuasive.

Part 2 opens with Roger Savage’s very useful scene-setting chapter on Vaughan Williams’s direct connections to literary production in the figures of family, friends, and associates – these rather more than the big beasts of literary production in his own time. Beyond the influence it had on his music, this chapter demonstrates the extent of Vaughan Williams’s personal engagement with literature, something that Hugh Cobbe’s chapter tracing literary references in the composer’s letters further amplifies. A helpful appendix to Savage’s chapter documents the composer’s literary involvement with three ‘circles’ of writers whose work fed into his music – those who died before 1890, those before the public c.1890–1905, and his friends, relations, and personal collaborators. It will be a handy reference point for future research.

The next four chapters – three of which examine Vaughan Williams’s relation to particular writers, with the last one turning to rumination on Vaughan Williams’s spectacular use of a commonplace musical gesture, are the core of the book and a model of how musicology can communicate its findings to a general audience. The first, by Alain Frogley, considers his encounter with Whitman, perhaps his most celebrated influence. Frogley’s focus is not on the thematic influence of Whitman on Vaughan Williams, which is already well known (particularly as a result of Frogley’s own extensive researches), and his essay unfolds instead as a chronological survey of the Whitman-inspired works, particularly valuable for its consideration of a number of unpublished pieces, including one, Whispers of Heavenly Death, dated 1908, which was only discovered in 2000.

Byron Adams’s stylish essay on Vaughan Williams’s Elizabethan fascination brushes the cobwebs off a facet of English music’s nostalgic attitude in the twentieth century – important too for Britten, of course – that has tended to be romanticized and idealized to the point of banality. As Adams notes, Vaughan Williams was neither sentimental nor uncritical of the ‘heroes’ of England’s ‘Golden Age’, including the person of the virgin queen herself. His essay encourages us to hear music such as Sir John in Love with renewed vigour. Unsentimental too is the association between Vaughan Williams and Housman’s poetry (and that poet’s slightly antagonistic but realistically deferential attitude towards composers) in Philip Lancaster’s rewarding essay on the Housman settings. It is a deeply sympathetic reading that takes one back keenly to the music.

Julian Rushton’s chapter on Vaughan Williams’s ‘tradic magic’ is a translucently communicative study of a particularly expressive trick open to composers in the early twentieth century, one which elevates the plain triad – omnipresent in composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – to a symbol of the numinous. It enables the non-specialist reader a privileged glimpse behind the magician’s curtain and greatly enriches appreciation of such familiar pieces as the Tallis Fantasia.

It is entirely apt that the epilogue should be offered by Michael Kennedy, on whose shoulders much of the work in this volume stands (and to whom Byron Adams’s chapter is dedicated). He reflects on the nowadays apparently secure critical position of both of the composers treated here, to which this handsomely produced and meticulously edited book is merely the latest warmly recommended testament.

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