Volume XV • SPRING 1960 · Number 3
Sir Edward Elgar as a University Professor
--JERROLD N. MOORE
It is not generally known that Sir Edward Elgar once gave a course of lectures on music at the University of Birmingham. Elgar had accepted the newly created professorship at the end of 1904, rather against his better judgment. His lack of experience and ease in the new situation was apparent in every lecture he gave. He was suffering from chronically poor health throughout this period, and he was further depressed by the angry rejoinders from those he had unwittingly hurt by his outspoken and somewhat ill-assorted remarks during his lectures. In the end, Elgar resigned his professorship, and general relief was immediately apparent.
Partly because of their history, Elgar's Birmingham lectures have been largely forgotten. They were never published, although some of Elgar's biographers were able to print brief quotations from one of the two surviving copies--one in manuscript and the other in typescript-- both of which are now at the Elgar Birthplace at Broadheath, near Worcester. The writer, while in England during the past summer, engaged on a research project made possible by a University of Rochester Summer Research Fellowship, had the privilege of reading the Elgar lectures from the manuscript. The lectures proved interesting and illuminating from many points of view, and of the greatest aesthetic and historical importance. Carice Elgar Blake, the composer's daughter, very generously gave the University of Rochester her permission to reproduce the lectures on microfilm, and this work has now been carried out. One copy is deposited in the Rush Rhees Library of the University, and another in the Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music. These are the only complete copies of Elgar's lectures in the United States, or indeed anywhere outside the Elgar Birthplace at Broadheath.
Elgar was not a university man. His schooling had ended at the age of fifteen; and, although in 1905 he possessed honorary doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and Leeds, and from Yale University, his formal musical education had been limited to a few violin lessons as a boy. His older contemporaries Parry (1848-1918) and Stanford (1852-1924) were established as composers of importance and professors of repute at a time when Elgar--only nine years Parry's junior-- was still going about Worcestershire as a local violin teacher. Indeed, his meteoric rise to international prominence had been accomplished only in the half-dozen years preceding the Birmingham lectures, beginning with the successful production of the "Enigma" Variations in 1899. In the intervening years, however, success after success had attended the production of Elgar's major works, he had been made the recipient of a knighthood and an impressive collection of university degrees, and his pre-eminence in English music had been officially recognized by an invitation to compose the "Coronation Ode" for Edward VII in 1902, and by a resoundingly successful three-day festival of his works in London, under the patronage of the King and Queen.
In the autumn of 1904, Richard Peyton offered £10,000 to the University of Birmingham for the establishment of a chair of music, "the only condition being that it should in the first instance be offered to & accepted by Sir Edward Elgar, Mus.Doc., L.L.D."1 Elgar thus became the immediate focus of pressures from several directions. The university was quite naturally eager to secure the services of a distinguished man and a handsome endowment; and Elgar himself was not at all affluent, despite his popular successes, and welcomed the prospect of extra income. But there had already been signs of jealousy and ill-will--no doubt on account of Elgar's new-found pre-eminence-- from certain academic musical quarters. And Elgar had grave and, as it turned out, well-founded doubts as to his abilities as a university lecturer:
When the suggestion, a very flattering one, was made to me, that I should be the first occupant of the Richard Peyton Chair of Music in the University, I hesitated for several reasons. I doubted very seriously my own abilities and I pondered equally seriously upon the possibilities of working for any good in this new sphere.2
At the same time, Elgar recognized--as everyone else did--the fact of his pre-eminence, and, feeling as he did that a close co-operation amongst the practitioners of all the arts was indispensable,3 he reasoned that
There is no apparent reason why a musician should not discourse usefully on his time.4
To "discourse usefully on his time": this remained Elgar's purpose throughout his professorship. His first lecture, delivered on March 16, 1905, set the tone: its title was "A Future for English Music." Elgar's hope for the future--and he made a special point of calling it "a future" rather than "the future"5--embodied some drastic changes from existing situations. He said what he felt he had to say with honesty and forthrightness; but, as he and many others felt, the vision of "a future" did not always emerge with perfect clarity. He tried his best to forestall trouble from the establishment:
One thing is not indefinite and that is my goodwill and I will say love of my fellow musicians. I hold very definite views as to our art, but I do not intend to use my position here in any other way than for the great, broad, open and let us say, peaceful advancement of the best. . . Let us sink small differences and hold in view the good of our beloved art only.6
Lady Elgar noted that "E. lectured most splendidly, held his audience breathless."7 Yet Elgar was nervous and worried, and felt that his lack of experience in lecturing had betrayed him. Coming out of the lecture-room, he asked for directions to a pharmacist: "I must go and buy some strychnine. This is the end of me."8
During his first lecture Elgar had outlined a course of lectures which would deal with the various facets of the musical world, and, despite the quantities of severe criticism--much of it ill-natured-- which followed this first lecture, Elgar felt that, having taken the decision, he must continue in the professorship:
I stand here in a position new to me, made for me: a position of responsibility and it may be of honour.9
The lectures he had promised were delivered during the fall term of 1905: "English Composers" on November 1; "English Executants" a week later; and on the twenty-ninth "Critics" (which included a consideration of the discriminating audience). Each of these lectures was "preceded by intense gloom in the Elgar household and followed by controversy in the press."10 He kept bravely on, summarizing his position in "A Retrospect" on December 6. But the obvious ill-will of a number of his colleagues disturbed and depressed him, and the apparently generous statement he made in the November 29 lecture is capable of more than one interpretation:
I have never found difference of opinion make[s] daily intercourse with real strong men less possible.11
Then he turned to the more technical aspects of music, giving lectures on "Orchestration" (December 13), and analyzing two symphonies from the classic repertoire, Brahms' Third and Mozart's Fortieth. These two lectures were given during the fall term of 1906, on November 1 and 8. They proved to be Elgar's last. During the Winter of 1906-7 his health became worse, and early in the new year it was agreed that the professor should take the chair at lectures to be delivered by others under his supervision. This arrangement had been proposed at the beginning, but Elgar had felt that the office demanded personal responsibility for the composition and delivery of the lectures. He did consent to take the chair for the lectures of others in 1907, but he was ill at ease, and, feeling that he was contributing nothing, he resigned on August 30, 1908.
We may guess Elgar's feelings of incapacity and frustration over the entire episode, and his biographers have largely treated his tenure of the Birmingham professorship as a failure, ignoring the whole affair or treating it with reticence. Yet Elgar's half-unconscious premise in these lectures, that whatever the great creative artist may have to say about his art, or art in general, will be of interest and provide unique insights to anyone concerned with the arts, is surely correct; and is equally true whether or not the artist's message is delivered with the tact and finesse of the experienced lecturer. It would be a mistake to expect in these lectures the presentation of a permanently valid and completely consistent aesthetic, but it would be an even greater injustice to suppose that Elgar's Birmingham lectures are of no interest except to music historians, and to such others as might be curious as to the condition of music in England in 1905. The truth--and with it the real value of the lectures--lies somewhere between these extremes. And as with the great majority of creative artists' aesthetic statements, these lectures are perhaps most valuable for the light they shed upon Elgar the man and his artistic credo.
Elgar's lectures are not easy to read, nor were they easy to listen to half a century ago. The form of the individual lectures is loose in the extreme, and sometimes barely discernible. Each lecture bears the signs of laborious composition over a long period of time, followed by a tortuous fitting together of disparate parts. Digressions are very frequent, and are made upon every imaginable aesthetic subject: again and again Elgar's attempt to unify the arts brings his considerations near to chaos. All of this compositional difficulty reveals the unpracticed hand.
Furthermore, Elgar realized that he could make a better rhetorical effect as an extemporaneous speaker than by the use of an elaborately prepared manuscript. As the lectures progress, their written form becomes more and more sketchy and allusive: "A Future for English Music" is entirely written out in sentences, and occupies twenty pages of typescript; whereas the final lecture, on Mozart's Fortieth Symphony, consists of a one and one-half page list of ideas, illustrations, and allusions, together with an occasional rhetorical transition, sometimes written out but more frequently abbreviated.
A careful reading of the lecture notes as a whole, however, reveals a degree of coherence and consistency of artistic analysis that was easy to miss as the lectures were delivered one by one. Not that this consistency is complete: but the few striking contradictions themselves reveal something of Elgar's problems not only as lecturer, but as musician and aesthetician as well.
"I am not here to teach," Elgar said in his "Retrospect"; "I am here to suggest."12 Throughout his lectures he maintained very carefully the point of view of the creator, not that of the critic. Realizing that he lacked the temperament of the critic, Elgar wisely did not try to assume the mask or attitude of a professional critic, with his wide knowledge and detached sympathies. Elgar never let his audience forget that as a creator, "talking shop" was not his vocation, and that a broadly impersonal analysis was not to be expected. But he faced squarely and at the outset the implications of the position he did take up:
I fear that in this opening address there may be rather a strong personal note. . . As I am speaking from my own experience--experience dearly bought--I fear that it cannot be otherwise.13
As the creator of a living art, Elgar was avowedly more concerned with the present state and expectations of his art than with any historical perspectives in and for themselves. Accordingly, in his first lecture, he attempted to define the future he felt best for English music. His analysis of the present state of music, and his bitter complaints over the commercialization and lack of wide appreciation of his art, are unfortunately at least as true of the artist's relationship with his society in 1960 as they were in the England of Elgar's day:
Our art has no hold on the affections of the people and is held in no respect.14
Elgar's suggested remedies embody the artist's timeless protest at the imperfection of the everyday world in the face of his quest for the ideal. He approached the problem from two directions: a consideration of the creative artist and his aims, and an analysis of the artist's audience.
A large audience for good music--capable of aesthetic understanding and critical judgment--must be created by the provision of many concert-halls, frequent concerts by the greatest artists, performing the finest music, and all at a token admission:
I would like to see in every town--a large hall capable of accommodating a large sixpenny audience. Concerts cannot be given without loss and the vast mass of the people are untouched. From these we must draw our future audience.15
But mere numbers, of course, meant little; the real problem was one of education:
Any good audience. . . must be in a measure critical; I therefore included intelligent audiences among the factors necessary to the [health] and well-being of a concrete art.16
Elgar had little to say about the means whereby such an artistic education of the public might take place. From his love for his art he seems to have evolved a faith in the perfectability of human nature in this direction--a faith perhaps not so unfounded as certain malign influences in our own time may make it appear. He did, however, offer one hint to the creation of an intelligent audience:
Let us consider what sort of audiences we want to please. We like to see scientific men, artists of all kinds, and literary men, actors--in fact, everyone who is connected with art in any shape or form. If our compositions interest and touch some responsive chord in these people, we are pleased, and have the gratification of knowing that art has met art, and that in itself is an artistic reward.17
One thing most pleasing to a composer is to count amongst his hearers and supporters the most cultured literary men, artists, sculptors, scientists, and in fact all cultivated people not necessarily musicians. I am hoping to induce a great critic, a great painter, and an author and so forth, to come to Birmingham and tell us why they like one piece of music and not another.18
Elgar would not make precise predictions as to the outcome of such an experiment (which unfortunately was never carried out), but he felt that the underlying principles and endeavours of the various arts were the same. A variety of fresh points of view might therefore be combined with an avoidance of narrow professionalism, an artistic manifestation which Elgar detested. His plan for the education of a composer supports this idea: "Literature, the study of Art, and last of all Music."19
If Elgar's view of the arts as Art is not very precisely formulated, it is not therefore less suggestive, and the alert listener at Birmingham would have found--as the interested reader at Rochester will discover--that much of what Elgar had to say about English music in 1905 applies to all of art in any time and place.
The vastly more important end of the question of improving the arts and their status with the potential audience, however, concerns the creator himself. Elgar felt the greater importance of this aspect both as artist and in his present role as educator. Again, his protests were against the specific, contemporaneous manifestations of the problems of art that have been chronic in the post-Renaissance world. His position was the paradoxical but not self-contradictory one that the creator must assert his individuality, but must simultaneously belong to, and be the representative of, a tradition and a cultural heritage greater than himself. Elgar condemned the imitators of Richard Strauss and the "sickly sentimentality" of the French "decadents."20 He recorded his disappointment that the so-called "renaissance" of English music which had occurred around 1880 had proven chimerical:
I am not going to criticise these works in detail: it is not necessary. . . The greater portion are dead and forgotten and only exist as warnings to the student of the twentieth century. It is saddening to those who hoped [for] so much from these early days, to find that after all that had been written, and all the endeavour to excite enthusiasm for English music--"big" music--to find that we had inherited an art which has no hold on the affections of our own people, and is held in no respect abroad.21
Thus Elgar specifically warns the aspiring creative artist
. . .not to be led away by any of the small schools of thought that are so easily brought to the front and have their little day, and have their little coterie. One man admires another and writes him up, and he says that So-and-so is the greatest composer living, and So-and-so says that the critic is the greatest critic alive. Believe me that has nothing to do with the movement of the world. The world revolves and the great things still go on, and the little clique is nothing more than a kitten playing with its own tail. You students have something --or should have--a higher ideal altogether. Let your inspiration be real and high.22
At the same time, the creative artist must seek adherence to his cultural heritage, and express his faith in a set of real ideals:
There are many possible futures [for English music]. But the one I want to see coming into being is something that shall grow out of our own soil, something broad, noble, chivalrous, healthy and above all, an out-of-door sort of spirit.23
At the present no one who lives in the world of music in England can help feeling that something is moving.24
Whether it would result in real progress or mere movement was not yet clear to Elgar. Yet there was no English "school" of composers, for English composers lacked a national style.25 So that Elgar's plea for the young creator and for progress is paradoxical, as it must be:
I have spoken of the young English school--what does it mean? I confess I do not know; and yet it is for that school that I stand here, and for which in a certain measure I plead.26
This paradox defines the mature creator's aesthetic position, but it also is suggestive of Elgar's own place in the history of music. The so-called "renaissance" of Parry and Stanford had failed to create a lasting contribution, and Elgar found himself the first English composer of international importance in two centuries. He therefore felt pragmatically as well as personally justified in making his hopeful prediction conform closely to the spirit of his own music. Any great creative artist contributes something of his own personality to the character of the art which follows him. In normal circumstances, he is said to establish a "tradition"; and Elgar, lacking either egotistical pride or false modesty, could legitimately expect that such a "tradition" would follow his own success. That it did not was the accident of history.
Elgar was chronologically the last great representative of Romanticism in art. Indeed, long before he came to prominence most manifestations of the great nineteenth-century artistic tradition on the Continent either were moribund or had disappeared entirely. He was right in seeking something new for creative youth: but he could not know that Stravinsky and Schönberg were to burst upon the world within less than ten years of the moment at which he spoke.
Elgar's position in musical history, then, was a strange one: he was the last representative of a great stylistic tradition, yet he found himself at the head of an infusion of creative life into his national art. This paradox was constantly reflected in his own opinions, which are scattered freely throughout the lectures.
For Elgar, the quarrel between the old and the new in musical form assumed the specific proportions of the contest between the traditional and slowly evolved form of the symphony, and the newer programmatic symphonic poem, with its almost infinitely flexible structure to satisfy the needs of the "story." In this contest, Elgar's aesthetic affiliation was uncompromisingly with tradition and against the rebels. He quotes Bentham's remark that "Tyranny and Anarchy are never far asunder."27 He warns young artists against discarding old forms when they will thereby lose more than they gain.28 Elgar's plea is actually more for the solid and informed use of "proportion," however, than it is an advocacy of antiquarian or classical form for its own sake.29
Elgar's condemnation of programme music because of its tendencies toward formlessness provoked many rejoinders to the effect that he himself was guilty of writing music which represents a "story," or at least specific situations. He replied, characteristically:
When I see one of my own works by the side of, say, the Fifth Symphony [of Beethoven], I feel like a tinker may do when surveying the Forth Bridge. . . 30
I still look upon music which exists without any poetic or literary basis as the true foundation of our art.31
I hold that the Symphony without a programme is the highest development of art.32
"The essentials of the symphony-form are not barren formalism, but are based on the unalterable logic of human expression." (E. A. Baughan).33
Some writers are inclined to be positive that the symphony is dead. Perhaps the form is somewhat battered by the ill-usage of some of its admirers. . . but when the looked-for genius comes, it may be absolutely revived.34
"The looked-for genius": Elgar had previously tried to write a symphony, and had failed. He had probably not yet conceived the great Symphony in A flat which he was to produce three years later. To understand the true humility of Elgar's anticipatory remark, we need only consider its juxtaposition with his perhaps unconsciously sinister statement that he considered Richard Strauss--the chief exponent of the programmatic and loosely-formed symphonic poem--to be the most important composer of the day.35
At the very basis of Elgar's Birmingham lectures lies the seeming paradox of encouraging the young to creative achievement while at the same time seeing good in the old. It is the paradox which every creative artist and every great educator must master for himself. Elgar looks back upon the romantic spirit which provided his own creative stimulus as upon a kind of golden age, and he is just able to descry-- even in the twentieth century--the possibility of its establishment in the tawdry and imperfect world in which we live:
There is still room in some hearts, if not in some heads, for the pure and beautiful in music. The young composer may still write music inspired by the higher feelings with acceptance.36
At the same time, he recognizes the need of art for a leading light to infuse inspiration into its practitioners:
The effect of one great dominating spirit [in art] has the vivifying effect we want in England now.37
Elgar himself was, and was to be, "the looked-for genius," the symbol of leadership in art which he had found so lacking in his own youth. Elgar created single-handed a national artistic style; and, if younger creative musicians were to find themselves without an artistic heritage from which they could draw direct inspiration, this was due to an accident of history, and not--as it had been for the young Elgar--to the utter lack of "the looked-for genius."
Elgar saw and defined as clearly as he could the future he wanted for his art:
. . .something broad, noble, chivalrous, healthy and above all, an out-of-door sort of spirit.38
His fierce idealism is here clearly revealed, but the actual formulation is difficult to apply to any art but Elgar's own, which it fits perfectly. The great creative artist stamps his aesthetic personality upon everything he touches, and Elgar's Birmingham lectures constitute preeminently his artistic credo. The paradox of Elgar's position in the history of his art--a paradox upon which he instinctively built the Birmingham lectures--is the paradox of the great artist in any time or place: the brief and transitory influence of his style upon the works of others, juxtaposed with the timeless endurance of his own works in that style. "I am not here to teach," Elgar had said; "I am here to suggest."39 The great man cannot "teach" others to be great: the looked for genius comes seldom and his achievement is unique. Elgar knew this better than anyone who has not been moved by the creative impulse could possibly know it, and on the score of his Second Symphony he wrote:
Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight ! 40
The passages here reproduced from Sir Edward Elgar's lectures at the University of Birmingham are quoted by permission of Mrs. C. Elgar Blake and the Elgar Trustees.
- Quoted in: Percy M. Young, Elgar, O.M., (London, 1955), p. 124.
- "A Retrospect," p. 1.
- See below, pp. 34-35.
- "A Retrospect," p. 3.
- "A Future for English Music," p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Percy M. Young, Elgar, O.M., (London, 1955), p. 127.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- "A Future for English Music," p. 1.
- Diana McVeagh, Edward Elgar: His Life and Music, (London, 1955), p. 43.
- "Critics," p. 13.
- "A Retrospect," p. 3.
- "A Future for English Music," p. 1.
- "English Composers," p. 1.
- Ibid., pp. 5-6.
- "Critics," p. 1.
- "A Future for English Music," p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- "English Composers," p. 9.
- "A Future for English Music," pp. 13-14.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- "A Retrospect," p. 4.
- "A Future for English Music," p. 7.
- "A Retrospect," p. 5.
- "English Composers," p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- "A Retrospect," p. 9.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- Ibid., p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- "Orchestration," pp. 10-11.
- "English Executants," p. 12.
- "A Future for English Music," p. 18.
- "A Retrospect," p. 3.
- Shelley, Song.