20 July 2014

An English Ring


There is a certain religious undercurrent in Wagner’s Ring, but at heart these four connected operas tell a story which is based on mythology and legend rather than either historical fact or religious belief.  However, less than 25 years after The Ring, another major composer embarked on an interrelated series of substantial works telling one of the most epic stories of all time - the founding of the Christian church - giving the Kingdom of Heaven and the work of the Disciples every bit as much musical stature as was afforded Valhalla and the resident Gods.  Sitting through last night’s opening of the Proms, there were times when memories of The Ring flooded in; not least in the extreme length of the work and the almost endless stream of wonderful musical moments, both orchestral and vocal.  We were experiencing the second of what Elgar had intended as a trilogy of oratorios, The Kingdom.

Stephen Johnson has written about the origins of Elgar’s projected oratorio trilogy; “Elgar remembered the event that first set his imagination working towards this exalted goal. A teacher at his Worcester school, Francis Reeve, told Elgar’s class: ‘The Apostles were very young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.’ Gradually, the young Elgar began to think in terms of a religious work about those lowly, uneducated men who had laid the foundations of modern Christianity. The idea stayed with him into adulthood – the first sketches date from the early 1880s – but by the time he sat down to compose in earnest, it had become clear that one work, however ambitious, could hardly contain all he wanted to say. And so Elgar arrived at the idea of the trilogy: three full-length oratorios depicting the calling of the twelve young men (The Apostles), the beginning of their evangelical mission on earth (The Kingdom) and – most ambitious of all – the outcome at the end of time (The Last Judgement). Wagner’s monumental operatic Ring cycle would at last have found its religious counterpart”.

The first oratorio in the projected trilogy is The Apostles.  About 20 years ago I was involved in a performance in Bangor, North Wales, and became so utterly captivated by this that I have since spent much of my time pursuing performances and recordings of what I regard as a truly epic choral work, with some of the most spine-tingling moments you would find in all of music.  I have never had quite such a feeling about the second instalment – the “slow movement of the choral symphony” as some of the publicity for last night’s performance put it – and despite Andrew Davis’s inspired and inspirational direction, I’m not entirely sure I have been won over to The Kingdom in the way I was with The Apostles.  It is certainly, and deliberately, a more subdued work, although there are some truly exciting moments, and I have to say in the Albert Hall and with the vast numbers of performers involved in last night’s concert, these had a shattering (if not always really clearly audible) impact.  Despite a voice which seemed once or twice to be suffering in the heat, you would have to go a very long way to find as good a baritone soloist as Christopher Purves; the baritone carrying the bulk of the solo work in The Kingdom.  Focused and pitch perfect, his sparkling diction and complete conviction of delivery contrasted very favourably with the two female soloists – Erin Wall and Catherine Wyn-Rogers - both of whom seemed a little too reminiscent for my taste of those days when both vocally and visually female soloists felt they were the most important part of any performance (in much the same way as did tenors in Italy).  The tenor in this performance was Andrew Staples, a very impressive voice but a little too transparent always to be wholly convincing.

But to get back to the work itself, it is one of music’s most tantalizing “what ifs”.  What if Elgar had completed the third part?  Would we have had an English “Ring” presenting to the world the image of England (and its Colonial possessions, at their most numerous around the time Elgar was working on these three oratorios) as the symbolic recreation of Heaven on Earth, just as Wagner’s Germany was the actual embodiment of the mythical Valhalla complete with heroic deeds and a world-beating attitude?  If the belief that “God is an Englishman” (a sentiment sometimes expressed – and not always tongue-in-cheek – in the early decades of the 20th century) allowed the English to believe that their church was the only true avenue by which Christian faith could be channelled, then Elgar’s projected trilogy was to be a work which also celebrated England itself.  What would the world have made of that?  Might not it have led to the re-evaluation of English composers in the pantheon of great composers, and re-written the Classical Canon to dilute the overwhelming Germanic flavour?    

So the question is why, with two parts already completed, did Elgar never complete the third?  He certainly continued working on it for most of the rest of his life, but the completion of The Kingdom coincided with (or maybe caused) a marked deterioration in Elgar’s health.  Johnson suggests that as the work neared completion “he began to suffer seriously from anxiety and depression”.  In Elgar’s own time, the influential critic Ernest Newman understood and voiced the concerns Elgar had about tackling such a huge project:  “He has seen fit to fasten upon his own back the burden of an unwieldy, impossible scheme for three oratorios on the subject of the founding of the Church; and until that scheme is done with, and Elgar seeks inspiration in a subject of another type, the most sanguine of us cannot expect much from him in the way of fresh or really vital music.”

Another problem which Elgar faced and which may well have prevented him from completing what more than one commentator has described as “An English Ring”, was the lack of musically intelligent English singers.  As he wrote in a letter shortly before the first performance of The Apostles, “Oh these singers – where are their brains?”  He described English voices as “too white”, and hankered after some of the darker voices of Dutch and German singers he had heard on his European travels.  Given the fact that the first performance of The Apostles in Birmingham in 1903 was met with muted response caused, in the words of the critic Arthur Johnstone, because it is “austere and difficult to understand”, one is led to the conclusion that neither English musicians nor English audiences were intellectually, spiritually or musically ready for such a work.  And if the English could not perform it or appreciate it, what value was there in Elgar ever completing it?

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