The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.
he web of interconnections in the world of musical high culture in England during the first two decades of the twentieth century was held together largely by the support of patrons. Among these, a figure hovering in the background of much of this evening's program was Leo Francis Howard ("Frank") Schuster (1852-1927). Siegfried Sassoon described Schuster as "more than a patron of music, because he loved music as much as it is humanly possible to do." Schuster was certainly one of the most generous musical benefactors of the period, with a special passion for the music of both Elgar and Fauré. The two composers were introduced to each other by Schuster, and each warmly admired the other's music. At Schuster's soirées leading poets, painters, authors, and composers met, mingled, and displayed their varied talents in an atmosphere of cultivated good taste.
While enjoying lavish hospitality at Schuster's homes in London and on the Thames at Maidenhead, an estate called "The Hut," Elgar worked on three of his most important mature works: the First Symphony, Violin Concerto, and tragic "symphonic study" Falstaff. In his will, Schuster left Elgar -7,000 — around $500,000 in today's currency. An inveterate organizer of musical events, Schuster was instrumental in the realization of the three-day Elgar Festival at Covent Garden in 1904, which was an unprecedented tribute to a living British composer. Outside of the concert hall, Schuster's parties afforded Elgar some of his most useful introductions, for instance to future collaborators such as the Yale professor of music, Samuel Sanford (1849-1910), who arranged for Elgar's honorary doctorate at that university — on a day which perhaps instituted the custom of performing the first Pomp and Circumstance March during American graduation ceremonies.
Elgar's Concert Allegro in C for piano solo, Op. 46 (the manuscript title page gives it the Schumannesque title "Concerto [without orchestra]"), was written for a "Purcell to Elgar" concert that the pianist Fanny Davies (1861-1934) was putting on at St. James's Hall in London on December 2, 1901, and it is dedicated to her. During its composition, Davies (whose playing Elgar later held up for rare praise) made various practical suggestions about the piano writing, marking the score "Humbly F.D!" as she did so. It is a novelty piece, with an exciting virtuoso opening whose many ideas seem to trip over each other as they vie for attention. But Elgar's brazen virtuosity is balanced by more poetic writing, in this case in the form of a second theme that begins on the distant and warm key of E-flat. The German conductor Hans Richter (1843-1916), closely connected with Wagner, and by this time also a passionate supporter of Elgar's music, was at a performance in Manchester five years later, and is reported to have exclaimed "It is as though Bach and Liszt had married each other!"
The four other Elgar piano pieces on this concert were composed between 1901 and 1917. The last, music from Elgar's short ballet The Sanguine Fan, was written toward the end of the First World War.The plot concerns the taunting of young human lovers by the mischievous Pan and Echo (whose dance is played here in the composer's arrangement). The music itself seems to remember eighteenth-century minuets, as well as, occasionally, Elgar's own Enigma theme and his Violin Concerto.
A related but different rumination on the theme of frustrated ambition is presented in Dream Children, an exquisitely touching pair of miniatures, originally written for orchestra but arranged by Elgar for piano. The orchestral score was prefaced by a wistful quotation from Charles Lamb (1775-1834):"We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams.We are only what might have been." Elgar often reflected on the loss of childhood wonder; later examples of such meditations are found in his incidental music for the children's play The Starlight Express, and the Nursery Suite, dedicated to the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret (the first of which is the present Queen Elizabeth II). The poignancy of the expression in the two movements of Dream Children is amplified by the gentleness of their dynamic markings. The music scarcely rises above a whisper, a characteristic it shares with Skizze, a short work with a perhaps disconcerting lack of focus in its harmonic shape, and May Song, which makes effective use of a characteristically Elgarian ostinato melody.
Other composers besides Elgar benefited from Schuster's support. Chief among them was the French composer Gabriel Fauré, whose reputation in Britain was cultivated by Schuster. Fauré had several other devoted patrons who were based in England. Among their number was his gifted Irish composition pupil, Adela Maddison (1866-1929), and the cosmopolitan American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who painted a famous portrait of the French composer. For one of Schuster's soirées in 1898, Fauré made a special arrangement for singer, piano, and string quintet of his song cycle La bonne chanson, originally scored for voice and piano. One of Fauré's finest achievements, this cycle dates from 1892-94, and was written for his mistress Emma Bardac (a consummate musician who later became the second Mme. Debussy). La bonne chanson makes imaginative use of a two-sided structural organization, for Verlaine's poems relate a narrative that runs concurrently with a purely musical form articulated by Fauré's use of recurrent themes throughout the cycle. Fauré's songs astonished his contemporaries, including Proust. Indeed, Debussy was startled by the work's formal ingenuity and harmonic novelty. Debussy's amazement is a testament to the work's highly expressive character. Fauré was unsure about the efficacy of this 1898 arrangement, but the strings add a special luster to the prominent piano part.
The Piano Quintet in D Minor by Frank Bridge, originally written in 1904-05, is in the composer's early refulgent style, clearly influenced by Brahms, but with a French refinement learnt from Fauré. One of the chamber works that Bridge wrote in the first decade of the century while establishing his technique, this quintet reconciles French clarity with German formal rigor. Bridge rethought the form in 1912 when he incorporated the scherzo into the slow movement to provide a quick-tempo contrast, and the interesting concomitant sense of a "movement within a movement."
Given a basic similarity in the personal appearance of Elgar and Fauré, it may seem that Schuster's purse only opened for the luxuriously mustachioed. Perhaps because he was both Jewish and homosexual in the censorious social climate of the Edwardian era, Schuster may have had particular insight into the experience of oppressed groups in the period between the Wilde trials and the successes of the movement for women's suffrage. Schuster was an important supporter of women composers. Among these, Maude Valerie White is unaccountably neglected. Returning to London after a period in Chile (1881-82), she organized regular concerts of her own music, and produced around 250 individual songs, partsongs, and duets. Among the most famous of her songs are her Shelley setting "My Soul Is an Enchanted Boat" and her Byron setting "So We'll Go No More A-Roving," which demonstrate the elegance of her prosody, generous melodies, and habit of achieving rhythmic impetus by avoiding hackneyed cadences.
White was an influence on the now better-known Roger Quilter, the Eton-educated composer whose contribution to English song of the lighter kind in the twentieth century gave an air of respectability to the Edwardian ballad, as can be heard in the three songs O Mistress Mine, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, and Love's Philosophy. The polish and urbanity of these songs starkly separates music from biography, betraying no sign of Quilter's frequent ill-health or the debilitating trauma of his homosexuality (it is believed that he was blackmailed more than once). The vigorous character of Dame Ethel Smyth, who, like Quilter and Sir Hubert Parry,was born into the imperial upper-middle class, is reflected in her dramatic musical style, which shows the clear mark of her peripheral early involvement in Brahms's musical circle. Possession, one of the Three Songs of 1913, reveals the introspective side of her musical personality, and is one of many songs that she sang to her own piano accompaniment.
Though no performer, Parry's stature in the decades before Elgar's ascendancy was unparalleled in English music. Considered by many a safe defense against the encroaching, decadent Wagnerism of Richard Strauss and Elgar (which generated eruptions of more or less xenophobic bile in the contemporary press), his musical idiom is often regarded as outwardly Brahmsian. Parry was a meticulous craftsman, and in Armida's Garden and My Heart is Like a Singing Bird, both written while he was Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University, there are premonitions of the next generation's remarkable fecundity in song composition.
Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; pp. 44-47.
Last modified 23 August 2007