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Elgar’s The Kingdom

by Leon Botstein

Written for The Kingdom, which was performed on October 31, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

During the Bard Music Festival in 2007, which had Edward Elgar as its focus, the American Symphony Orchestra planned to present in the New York area the composer’s three great oratorios. The festival, at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, closed with a performance of The Dream of Gerontius. The title role was brilliantly sung by Vinson Cole. The performance took on a special significance when the audience realized that Jessye Norman had come to hear Cole in this daunting but magnificent role. The chorus was prepared by James Bagwell, who also prepared the chorus for today’s performance of The Kingdom. The superb Princeton University volume that accompanies each year’s festival was entitled Elgar and His World, and was edited by the author of the program notes that accompany today’s concert, the distinguished Elgar scholar, Byron Adams.

In 2017 the ASO performed Elgar’s The Apostles on the stage here at Carnegie Hall. The reason for the gap of a decade between Gerontius and The Apostles was a combination of financial and cultural factors. Choral-orchestral works are expensive and, from a comparative standpoint regarding the value of money, extravagant affairs, especially in our society where hoarding money and acquiring permanent assets have gained an improbable prestige. The performing arts that require large forces—many performers with no potential of a CGI-like digital equivalent—suffer, despite the fact that we live in an era of extreme wealth. There is a pervasive sense among those who could support concert life that the cost of putting on one live large-scale professional performance, which remains only in one’s memory, seems utterly wasteful and capricious. Nonetheless, 75 percent of the costs of an evening at the symphony are wages that make it possible for musicians to earn a respectable but modest middle-class living. In a society that is unwilling to provide tax-based economic support for the performing arts, we are dependent on private charity and therefore we can only put on large scale programs intermittently. Furthermore, the number of high-caliber amateur choruses in New York has fallen, making it essential to work with professional singers in the chorus.

Yet, the 2017 Apostles performance was successful. A century had passed between it and the previous performance in New York. The Apostles created a groundswell of support for completing the ASO plan to perform all three Elgar oratorios. Emails and letters came in urging us to schedule The Kingdom—the least well known and least appreciated of Elgar’s oratorios. The ASO is pleased that only a two-year hiatus was needed, not a decade.

The cultural factor behind all this is a lingering prejudice against unfamiliar music within the public. It seems that only a few choral-orchestral works are guaranteed to fill a large concert hall—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Messiah, the Verdi Requiem. When was the last time one heard, in a major venue in New York, a performance of Dvořák’s Requiem, Schumann’s Scenes from Faust, or Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, all undisputed great works, much less the many less well-known gems from the choralorchestral repertoire?

It is hard not to notice a generous erosion in the public’s interest in history. There is now a welcome enthusiasm for new music, but there is a palpable loss of curiosity in the music of the past, again with the exception of familiar and acknowledged masterpieces. It therefore bears repeating that the way we tell the story of the past influences what we choose to do in the present and future. We neglect the rich history of music at our own peril.

We justify our neglect on account of an appeal to history as the ultimate arbiter of judgment. The world of music suffers from the illusion that the only music worth hearing are works that have survived the test of time. They are said to have persisted as part of the repertory and therefore deserve to be classified as masterpieces. The truth is, however, more complicated. Not all works that one might deem masterpieces survive the test of time. The reasons for that are not issues of quality, but matters of accident, politics, or mere bad luck. As the taste and education of our audiences have shifted from active amateur participation in making music, at home and in the community, to an audience accustomed to listening on electronic devices, more and more pieces of music find themselves passed over, even though some sound document of them can be found on the Internet. Even recent works vanish after a few performances. The music that remains and is played practically every season gets validated by an obsession peculiar to classical music; the obsession with some saintly status of an aesthetic of perfection that is granted to a few works. The audience seems more interested in the next rendering of a well-known work from the past than encountering some glorious but unfamiliar work once considered as great by past generations of musicians and listeners.

Neither literature or painting operate with such an obsession with a small canon deemed to represent unmatched greatness. The recent re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art easily reveals the contrast. A treasure trove of historic works, not all icons and not all hyper-familiar, are displayed alongside more recent art. The ASO has sought to reclaim the rapidly forgotten past for many years through performances. It has hung, on the stage, so to speak, the kind of works proudly displayed by MOMA and visible permanently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Within this somewhat dispiriting context of the absence of enthusiasm for great but unfamiliar music from the past with a slim performance history, English music, written in the 19th and 20th centuries, has struggled. Elgar was the first composer since Henry Purcell to achieve worldwide fame and broad acknowledgement as a major figure. His breakthrough to fame as a composer came rather late in life and it marked the beginning of an English renaissance in music that has continued to this day. But in New York, Elgar’s reputation has failed to lift the works of Parry and Stanford, or Bridge, Bliss, and Walton into view. A concert of English music from the past is not one that seems naturally to draw a crowd, with the possible exception of music by Britten.

Even though among English composers, Elgar remains the best known, The Kingdom has remained virtually hidden from American audiences. Gerontius (I still remember from my childhood a mesmerizing account with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie under Sir John Barbirolli) has gained some currency. But The Apostles and The Kingdom continue to experience resistance. Part of that resistance is once again financial since given the expense of choral works, most organizations retreat to the most popular, works such as the Verdi Requiem and the Messiah. The irony is that the travesty of neglect that persists for orchestral music may be even more severe when it comes to sacred and secular choral music with instrumental accompaniment from the 19th and 20th centuries. Therefore, the ASO is justly proud to present The Kingdom.

This performance is a rare opportunity. The critical evaluation of the work, as Byron Adams has suggested, has been compromised by a sense that Elgar’s own enthusiasm for the subject and the form may have waned. I think that view is unfair, even though there are good reasons to consider Gerontius a “greater” work. In preparing the 2017 performance of The Apostles, I came to the view that The Apostles is not inferior to Gerontius, as most literature on music history would have you believe. That sense of inferiority should also be dismissed in the case of The Kingdom. For all its virtues, the musical and poetic argument of Gerontius is profoundly obscure, subtle, and perhaps even dark. The subject matter of The Kingdom is, in contrast, transparent and, given the ending with the touching setting of The Lord’s Prayer, generously directed toward a broad audience.

Although today’s performance is by a professional chorus, one needs to remember that all three works by Elgar were written with large amateur choruses in mind. These works were also written with the expectation that performances before a listening audience made up of many amateurs would in turn inspire the audience to participate in and organize future performances, much like today’s many amateur, summer stock, provincial, and high school performances of works from the musical theater that began their life with successful premieres and runs on Broadway.

It also should be remembered that the generations of musicians and listeners who immediately preceded us were far more allergic to the on-the-sleeve piety of Elgar’s lush writing. There is something self-consciously emotional and beautiful about the music in this work. Despite its monumental Edwardian and British Imperial grandiosity and rhetoric, The Kingdom has the unmistakable character of using music to turn theology and faith into an accessible democratic experience. It is Elgar’s music that permits the generous dissemination of the highest aspirations of a universal church, one marked by humility and belief in the divine. Elgar may himself have become more skeptical in his faith, but his music, as the audience encounters the music of The Kingdom, enables a religious idealism to triumph. Elgar succeeds in mirroring to us the best of ourselves. Through the quintessentially human art of the imagination— music—the human invention of the divine and its ethics, through faith, suggest the highest standard for human behavior. Human virtue finds its eloquent incarnation in sound.

In our age of strife, hate, greed, invective, and conflict, Elgar’s lyric and dramatic eloquence is a welcome reminder of what we, as a community and a nation, might aspire to, and how we might interact with one another in our public and private lives.