An Answer To Pessimism,
By GOULBURN W. CROSSLEY !UST eight years before the centenary celebrations of the birth of Edward Eiger, the Henry Wood Concert Society announces a fourteen-day festival of his music, which will consist of the rendering of all the composer's major orchestral. choral. and chamber music compositions.
Since the death of Eiger. in 1934. there has been a growing realisation as to his greatness and in particular the influence which his art has contributed to general musical culture.
Unlike many composers. Elgar never suffered neglect; his genius was generally acknowledged in his lifetime and the highest honours. both academic and civil. were bestowed upon him at home and abroad. To the Catholic reader. not versed in the complications of musical technology. the sacred oratorios of Elgar will offer the greatest appeal, especially his setting of Cardinal Newman's "The Dream of Gerontius."
As a Catholic. Eiger was brought up by a musical father, a violinist and organist of St. George's Catholic church, Worcester. a post which the composer subsequently held until his marriage in 1889. In later years it became apparent that the composer became more and more attracted to the musical activities of the Anglican Church. in particular the Three Choirs' Festivals which are held in Anglican cathedrals. The strong friendships which he found in this environment gave him an intimate knowledge of Anglican Church music.
English Musical Renaissance
Eiger lived in an age of musical renaissance for English music-an age which produced great choral composers among whom were Stanford, Parry. Edward German, Cowan and Stainer. It is not surprising therefore that we find in Elgar's choral music a spirit of that age. His melodies are usually broad and sweeping, a "noble plainness" which Mr. Daniel Gregory Mason aptly described them. Characteristic as the " Pomp and Circumstance" march is of a nationalistic spirit. Elgar's greatest moments far transcend such popular expressions. His great achievements are attained through beauty of design, a growth of melody and a particular mysticism rooted in tradition and finding its outlet in a line of composers ranging from Palestrina, Bach. Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Throughout his major choral works, Elgar adopts the Wagnerian "Leitmotif " a procedure wherewith every character of the drama is represented by a musical theme, or melody. As reference or appearance to this particular character occurs throughout the sequence of events the introduction or re-introduction of the respective Leitmotif theme is heard. The evolution of this Leitmotif idea unfolds itself with beautiful effect in " The Dream of Gerontius." " The Kingdom" and " The Apostles." The penitential theme of Mary Magdalen, the remorse of Judas. the Love of God and the Holy Ghost. and the musical setting of the " Pater Noster" which leads to the finale of " The Kingdom " are but a few examples which illustrate the usage of this musical form.
The Leitmotif forinula is not only confined to Elgar's choral compositions. Instances can be heard in the First Symphony (the first introductory melody can be heard throughout each subsequent movement) and the Symphonic poem "Falstaff " based on Shakespear's Henry IV is built upon separate themes composed to represent particular incidents from the drama. Instances also occur in the violin and violoncello concertos when the re occurrence of a melody in some form or another gives the mind a sense of coherency and balance. Elgar was a master of form and, like Brahms, he may be likened to a musical architect.
His Christianity It may appear surprising that Eiger wrote no liturgicat music. nor associated himself with the later developments of modal and folk music so successfully pursued by Dr. Vaughan Williams. Gustav Hoist and others. We cannot point to an a cappela Mass--such as the one by Vaughan Williams and say that here is a modern composition which bridges a gap between the centuries of English music. a product of the Golden Age. This modal and sometimes Gregorian flavour of some of our modern English school is used by many of our composers who are not Catholics. and yet a glance at the list of the compositions by the Catholic Elgar show music written for Protestant rather than Catholic usage. By this we refer to his setting of chants for the Anglican service, anthems and such like which are in the regular repertoire of English cathedral choirs. At first sight this shows a sense of profound disappointment to the Catholic musicologist. It is known that Elgar had no aptitude for the modal folk song, but if we trace the course of a composer such as,Delius along a path of what may be called musical nihilism, can there be real regrets ?
On the other hand there is a particular danger to catalogue Christian art as Catholic or non-Catholic. Maritain in his essay on Christian Art refers to art as bearing on the face of it the character of Christianity (Art and Scholasticism, p. 68) -we find it impossible therefore to do justice to any composer merely by assessing his output on the quality and quantity of liturgical compositions. The composer's upbringing. his training in his craft and in particular his associations with a traditional past bear evidence to the main character of the artist. How true this was of Elgar-" Here," said the composer Richard Strauss, to a gathering of German musicians after an early performance of "The Dream of Gerontius " at the Rhineland festival, "is the greatest English composer since the day of Purcell."
Musical Mysticism A study of the music of all great composers reveals a particular depth of expression and utterance which is termed mysticism." This musical mysticism is particularly noticeable in Bach's settings of the Passion, the B minor Mass, and numerous instances could also be cited from the later compositions of Beethoven, Brahms and Caesar Franck. In considering these mystic qualities of musical art, the reader should understand that the musician is able to express his feelings in a manner more forceful than the utterance of words. Hence in music there exists an interplay of the imagination between the interpreter and the listener on the composer's mind and intention. The last four string quartets by Beethoven illustrate this as do many
examples from Elgar's music. As we shall have more to say later about "The Dream of Gerontius" the reader is recommended to consider the slow movement from the First Symphony, the Violoncello Concerto, the Piano Quintet and the second movement of the Second Symphony to grasp this meaning.
To commence a discussion on aesthetics as applied to musical art is considered to be outside the province of the musician. The philosopher is in a happier and stronger position to assess the qualities of music in relationship to morality. The musician on the other hand considers he has achieved his purpose, if through word of mouth, or better still through the performance of the music itself he is able to convince his listener that there is something of a personal nature which links us all to the language of sound. It is because Eiger is such a personal composer that this consideration is presented. He is a composer of a truly catholic mind and a composer who is a craftsman. a product of an age long tradition.
Edward Elgar was born in 1857, seven years after the re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy. At that time great intellectual conflicts were raging in Europe. The pessimism of Schopenhauer found its musical counterpart in Wagner's " Tristan and Isolda "beautiful music and yet expressing no hope or feeling for salvation -complete destitution. There was Wagner's great opera "Der Ring des Nibelungen " radiating the theory of Nietzsche's " Uberrnensch." Here we have a philosophy of life embedded in a musical utterance. a false challenge, but nevertheless a dual one.
The Answer to Pessimism From whence came this answer? Might we suggest Newman and his musical counterpart Eiger? Consider this suggestion for a moment and listen to a gramophone record of the Prelude to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolda " and then immediately change this and listen to the Prelude to "The Dream of Gerontius " and the meaning may he apparent. These records will give no words. only sounds but continue listening, hear the complete opera and then the
complete oratorio. The one will offer a sense of complete despair and the loss of faith, whilst with the other the listener is conscious of its dark moments yet confidence is there, hope. and the surety of ultimate salvation.
Further illustrations can he found in careful listening and comparison with Wagner's operas and Elgar's music. "The Dream of Gerontius" is no exception, Edgar's style as found in this oratorio is preserved throughout his later compositions and often improved upon the heights of his genius were not reached until some years later. On the other hand, no matter what posterity will say of Elgar the composer. we may be sure that with his setting of "The Dream of Gerontius" a link was forged for all time between his name and that of John Cardinal Newman both wrote in Gerontius a particular masterpiece and both were possessed with outstanding ability, they were both Catholics and both expressed in their respective callings the glories of a Catholic tradition.
"Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul in my most loving arms l now enfold thee
And o'er the penal waters, as they roll, I poise thee and I lower thee, and hold thee."