Why Elgar?

And why should these works be performed? Why Elgar? Realistically, there’s no way to institute quotas in the unfair world of programming — nor should there be. However, by increasing the variety of works performed, institutions (many of whom fret about dwindling subscription rates and empty seats) could potentially attract a wider group of patrons, as well as renew in performers the stimulation that comes with learning new works.

As for variety, Elgar’s works undoubtedly fit the bill (how many people can hum In the South by memory?). And these inclusions wouldn’t represent a downgrade in quality of music. In terms of mastery and breadth of work, Elgar is no Beethoven or Brahms — no one, to my knowledge, is trying to make this claim — but in concert, Elgar’s Cockaigne or Froissart could certainly take the place of Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus or Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture.

These kinds of comparisons, of Elgar’s works to other composers’ pieces in the same medium, make clear their value. Particularly in incidental music and miniatures, Elgar is strong an appraisal1 by his friend and colleague George Sampson: “He has never written beyond his means... he can do little things and do them well.”). His incidental music to Grania and Diarmid may not rival Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it stands up to Schubert’s Rosamunde, for example.

This comparison of musical value is a matter of preference, of course, but even from a strictly durational perspective, Elgar’s string quartet is as significant as those by Debussy and Ravel — and it’s formally innovative as well as charming. Looking at other composers who contributed one major work to the genre, I think Elgar’s quartet is as compelling as Grieg’s Quartet in G Minor2 and Barber’s Quartet (whose Adagio is rightfully lauded — but the third movement is simply a truncated reprise of the first), both of which are more popular. Elgar’s quartet is a late work3 that represents the apex of his chamber music writing, but, not for lack of trying, I’ve heard it performed far less frequently than Webern’s Langsamer Satz, which, though pretty, is essentially juvenilia.

Because works like Grania and the string quartet didn’t immediately become concert staples (and Elgar’s music hasn’t enjoyed a renaissance in the years since his death), today, few musicians are familiar with them. If things continue this way, these works will never get the chance to fill the concert roles they so easily could. Subsequently, Elgar’s image becomes one of a peripheral English writer with three or four major works, instead of an estimable composer with a vast — and, in many cases, great — output.

Music itself is only one aspect of the music organization, which requires many experts to run smoothly. I’m no marketing expert, but, to the extent that anything in classical music can be hyped, I believe Elgar can be. Beef up his incidental music with video art. Feature Polonia on a program of music dedicated to Poland; compare it with pieces by Polish composers from the same time period. Invite listeners to solve the Enigma or find the “never done before” technique in the string quartet’s slow movement. Lead a search for interest in unfamiliar works.


In fact, between work and rotating musical obsessions, I often forget to listen to Elgar’s music. My journey with him was largely a fluke: I programmed his violin sonata on a graduate recital, which included the academic requirement of writing a brief accompanying paper. I could have stopped at 10 double-spaced pages.

But I’m glad I went down the Elgar rabbit hole, spending hours familiarizing myself with the Three Choirs Festival and the Master of the Queen’s Musik and Ménière’s Disease. As a 23-year-old performance major with no knowledge of how research is accomplished, Elgar was my gateway to a number of resources and areas of scholarship, including a subject that’s fascinated me ever since: performance history.

Elgar’s name is famous, but most of his works aren’t. How is it that so many pieces by well-known composers are so rarely heard? How many unique pieces can a concertgoer expect to hear each season? What kinds of pieces, and who composed them? I begin to look at these questions in my survey of orchestras during the 2016–17 season.


1In fact, Sampson disdained English composers who aspired to a certain greatness: “The young English composer of a generation ago set out with an oratorio on the scale of the B minor Mass. The young English composer of a time slightly later began with a mythic trilogy on a scale exceeding ‘The Ring.’ The young English composer of recent date procured a quantity of forty-stave music paper, and, having filled every bar of every stave with noises for all possible combinations of instruments (including some new ones), called the product a Symphonic Poem.” Back up

2the F Major is unfinished Back up

3He wrote it at around the same time as the piano quintet and violin sonata, as well as the cello concerto Back up