REGARDING the apparent lack of appreciation of Sir Edward Elgar by the Catholic community in this country. I have my own pet theory. Many of us have doubtless read Cardinal Newman's epic poem concerning the long night of the soul. namely "The Dream of Gerontius". Elgar. who was born and bred a Roman Catholic, was inspired to set Newman's poem to music, faithfully recreating in music its profound theological and mystical qualities as well as its many emotional peaks and valleys.
Elgar's sublime musical treatment of the poem is regarded nowadays by many of his admirers (including myself) as his greatest masterpiece. It is also generally regarded, I believe. as one of the most moving and eloquent works of music ever written — and not just by an English composer either. Elgar himself described his setting of "Gerontius" as being "the best of me" and added: "This, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."
However. this great oratorio at its performance in Birmingham was nothing short of a flop, due partly to inadequate preparation by conductor, artists. orchestra and chorus, but also, in no small measure, to the reaction of the "intellectual" Anglican authorities at the time (1900). whb regarded the work as too "Romish" in character. and, indeed, one eminent musicologist of the day is reputed to have remarked to the composer: "My boy, it stinks of incense!"
There was, in short, strong antiCatholic prejudice at the time over "Gerontius" being performed in Anglican Cathedrals. and it was not until it was first performed in London (in Westminster Cathedral, incidentally, under the direction of Elgar himself) and in Germany that its outstanding musical merits. along with the literary merits of Newman's text, were at last so deservedly recognised.
Unhappily. the failure of "Gerontius" at its first performance left a scar on Elgar's attitude to his life and his work: he literally turned his face against all his previously devoutly held religious beliefs and convictions for many years. even going as far as to state that "God is against music". He therefore ventured into pastures new, seeking his fulfilment as art artist for the most part as a "patriotic troubadour and full-blooded romantic" (to quote Ken Russell) in terms ,of his subsequent musical output. It is on record, though, that, when on his own deathbed, he was once more reconciled with the Church.
My theory. therefore. is that because. for so many years following the first performance of "Gerontus" Elgar turned his back on the Catholic Church, we as Catholics in turn probably turned our backs on him, and, indeed, the very mention of his name became something of an embarrassment to us — we virtually locked him up in the broom cupboard in the hope that he might go away! And all the liturgical music which he has so prolifically and beautifully produced for the Catholic Church in this country prior to "Gerontius" was sadly forgotten or conveniently ignored — except by the Church of England who, despite the rejection of "Gerontius" by elements thereof in 1900, as mentioned above. were eventually to adopt for use in their own services the very music which he had originally composed for use by the Catholic Church! Irony indeed! Compound irony, in fact!
I am aware, let me hasten to add, that much of Elgar's output of sacred music was, of course, specifically commissioned for use by the Church of England, but I would not have thought that that fact would necessarily invalidate my theory.
I would be interested to learn the views of other "Elgarian" readers of your excellent (and at -times, but in the healthiest possible way, provocative!) newspaper.
Raymond N oHand