Monday, 3 August 2015

Sir Thomas Beecham on Edward Elgar

The saying of Sir Thomas Beecham that Elgar is ‘the musical equivalent of St Pancras Station’ is well-known: it is quoted on the Classic FM website as one of the ’22 Best [Musical] Insults. It suggests that the great conductor felt that Elgar’s music was past its sell-by date.  In his autobiographical The Mingled Chime, Beecham writes a few paragraphs that cannot be described as insulting: rather damning with the faint praise. Two things of interest: firstly, I think that Elgar is more popular today than Delius and secondly, St Pancras Station in its newest incarnation as the Eurostar terminal, combining the Victorian architecture of William Henry Barlow and George Gilbert Scott with the best of contemporary design, is now a well-loved London landmark. Finally, I do not believe the passage given below reveals Beecham as being quite as scathing towards Elgar as some of his more vehement detractors would wish.

‘The reputation of Delius continued to grow, although it was not yet rivalling that of Elgar whom the British public had placed on a pedestal higher than that occupied by any native composer since Purcell. I did not find this valuation shared by either our own or foreign musicians, and on those occasions when in later years I played this [Elgar] composer's works in continental countries, as well as in the United States, I found that time had failed to maintain it. All the same there is not the least doubt that most of what Elgar wrote between 1895 and 1914 showed an undeniable advance over anything produced by his English predecessors or contemporaries in the more orthodox forms such as the symphony and the oratorio.
The writing itself is clearer and more varied in style, the grasp of the subject closer and keener, and the use of the orchestra is often, but not always, admirable. The better side of him is to be found in miniature movements, where he is often fanciful, charming and, in one or two instances, exquisite. His big periods and 'tuttis' are less happy; bombast and rhetoric supplant too frequently real weight and poetical depth, and he strays with a dangerous ease to the borderline of a military rhodomontade [vain and empty boasting] that is hardly distinguishable from the commonplace and the vulgar. Here and there are cadences of a charm that are quite his own, unlike anything else in music, evoking memories without being in themselves reminiscent, and breathing a sentiment to be found in much English literature written between 1830 and 1880, notably Tennyson. But whatever the quality or merit of the invention, his is the work of a truly serious and honest craftsman’.
Beecham, Thomas, A Mingled Chime (London, Hutchinson, 1949) p.182 

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