Friday, 13 April 2012

Spike Hughes, Edward Elgar and Venice

Spike Hughes was an all round musician. He is perhaps best remembered (where remembered at all) for his jazz recordings. However, his ‘serious’ music was influenced more by the Second Viennese School and Egon Wellesz rather than the ‘pastoral ruminations’ of the English Musical Renaissance. I present a short extract from the first part of his entertaining autobiography, Opening Bars. It is interesting to come across someone who is not an Elgar enthusiast. I do not agree with all that he says however, it makes a good antidote to some of the more extravagant claims about Elgar’s music.

"On the occasion of the visit of the British Mediterranean Fleet to Venice [1], the Piazza [2] band launched out into a special arrangement of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The sailors in whose honour it was played were mostly dead drunk and well out of hearing, the smarter English visitors were out on the Lido at the Excelsior [3]…
…but the gesture was not lost on me. I stood reverently listening to the band, trying to make something of the music of a composer who was completely foreign to me and feeling greatly relieved when it was all over and the Enigma was followed by the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. [4]
Perhaps it is too much to expect to be able to appreciate Elgar in such circumstances; a naval band, however brilliant, is hardly the medium through which to hear the music of a man who was a fine orchestrator. On the other hand, I first made acquaintance with a large part of Othello, Ermani and Manon Lescaut [5] on the same Piazza and what I heard presented no difficulties.  It was all music which came naturally to me and which I understood instinctively.
Even today, twenty years after my first introduction to English music, I still have trouble coping with what my contemporaries consider to be [the] masterpieces of the English Renaissance. I can manage Elgar for he is so thoroughly professional in his technique and his blatantly pompous vulgarity; I can even suppress my nausea on reading his instruction to play nobilmente, [6] though I feel that it is up to the listener, not the composer, to decide whether a tune is ‘noble’ or not, especially as Beethoven was content to ask for no more than that the slow movement of the Ninth should be ‘adagio molto e cantabile.’ But for the rest I beg to be excused from the interminable rhapsodies on folk tines, the dullness of ‘contemplative’ slow movements and awkward, self-conscious heartiness.
It is an astonishing thing, this lack of genuine virility in so much English music. Elgar, with all his faults, had guts… who thought about the English countryside in terms or rolling hills, rich trees and haystacks… [7]
It is this Elgar, frank and genuine one moment, moody and introspective the next, who stands head and shoulders above his countrymen, the Elgar who wrote the Rondo of the Second Symphony and some (but not all) of Falstaff.
The Elgar who really gets me down is the composer of the opening of the First Symphony. Here the ‘nobilmentality’ gets out of hand a little too much. Yes, yes, I know it’s ‘sincere’; but sincerity does not excuse music though it may easily explain it…
Though my introduction to Elgar’s music in Venice may have puzzled me, and the Enigma Variations have lived up to their title a little too literally I was not downcast by the experience. Within a few days of the event I had packed a suit-case and set off for Salzburg to attend the International Contemporary Music Festival." [8]
Spike Hughes Opening Bars London Pilot Press 1946 [with minor edits]

[1] Probably the Third Light Cruiser Squadron
[2] The Piazza San Marco in Venice. This was and still is the home to the famous Caffe Florian’ orchestra
[3] The Lido is a sandbar located to the east of Venice. One of the more famous hotels there is The Excelsior.
[4] ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1905)
[5] Othello, Giuseppe Verdi (1887),  Ermani (1844) and Manon Lescaut Giacomo Puccini (1893)
[6] ‘Nobilmente’ was a musical direction often used by Edward Elgar.  It means played in a ‘noble’ style or even ‘majestically.’
[7] I have deliberately omitted a couple of sentences here. The sentiment would no doubt have appeared amusing when written; however, in my opinion is now unduly sexist.
[8] The first International Festival of Contemporary Music was held at Salzburg in August 1922.  British works performed included Arthur Bliss’ Rout, songs by Arnold Bax, Eugene Goossens and Gustav Holst.

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