A flawed man and blazing genius with blood in his music

The Life of Elgar

May 14, 2004

Michael Kennedy's Portrait of Elgar (1968) played a vital role in the rehabilitation of a composer once considered the epitome of Edwardian stuffiness. It offered the first psychologically penetrating depiction of a composer at odds with himself and society: temperamental and insecure about his humble origins, Elgar was exuberant one moment and suicidal the next.

"As a child and as a young man and as a mature man," he lamented at 64, "no single person was ever kind to me."

What Kennedy so skilfully established in his Portrait , and reminds us in this new book, is that Elgar's imagination transformed personal highs and lows into music of infinite range and subtlety - "a flawed human being", he reflects, "but a blazing genius as a composer".

Whether earlier recognition would have made any difference is debatable.

The years of struggle as a "provincial" composer were, in a way, Elgar's emotional and musical education, so that when fame beckoned in his 40s, he had a store of personal and professional experience on which to draw. Life and art always fed closely on one another in Elgar's creative imagination: he once commented that if you cut a bar of his music, it would bleed.

Kennedy traces the connections between Elgar's life and music with characteristic shrewdness and humanity. Interpretatively, his new book is close to his Portrait , though it has more material on Elgar's friendships with women such as Vera Hockman, the violinist who was his last "muse".

Only two aspects of the book mildly disappoint. One is the decision to avoid controversy by tucking away mention of Anthony Payne's "elaboration" of the Third Symphony in an endnote. Kennedy's comment - "as convincingly Elgarian as anything could be without being completed by Elgar himself" - combines carefulness with enthusiasm, and a trick has surely been missed in not foregrounding and discussing the ethics of its "reconstruction".

The other is an occasional thinness of sympathy towards Elgar's neuroses.

This might reflect Kennedy's tougher view nearly 40 years on; more probably, it is the cost of writing a short book about a complicated man.

Brevity does not flatter Elgar, who never takes a sentence to bare his wounds when a paragraph will do. A space-pressed Kennedy now tends to resort to the brisk charge of Elgar merely being "tiresome".

This Life of Elgar will nevertheless be an excellent introduction for those new to the composer and a stimulating extended essay for those who already know something about the life and music.

Nobody has been more successful than Kennedy in capturing the essence of Elgar's musical appeal. "In the Larghetto of the Serenade ," he writes, "we hear the Elgar of the slow movements of the symphonies, in which he combined yearning for the unattainable with a blissful sense of meditative resignation." Try it; is he not right?

John Gardiner has published several articles on the life of Elgar.

The Life of Elgar

Author - Michael Kennedy
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 228
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 521 81076 0 and 00907 3

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