Thursday, November 24, 2011

Connecting with Elgar

I'll just admit right off that I'm no Elgar expert. I know the cello concerto very well, having accompanied it many times and having listened to it many other times (I was a cellist once upon a time, and I married a cellist, AND I saw Hilary and Jackie (though I didn't like it)). I know the Engima Variations sort of well, but...yeah...I mainly know the "Nimrod" movement which I've listened to countless times (especially this excellent youth orchestra (!) version); frankly, I've never been such a big fan of the rest of the piece. And, yes, I think I've heard one of the Pomp and Circumstance marches once or twice. And, then there's a lot of other stuff I don't really know so well...I remember accompanying this and this once for a chorus and caring for it. (Such purple harmonies!)

But, I haven't come to bury Elgar - I've always felt a bit guilty I haven't gotten to know the symphonies and the violin concerto better. The Dream of Gerontius has always scared me for some irrational reason, but, yeah, that too. Some day. (Isn't it strange how loving something [music] can make you feel so guilty?) In the meantime, I recently got a chance to know the Violin Sonata since I played it in recital last weekend. Maybe because I don't have a fully developed sense of Elgar's style, I found myself driving the poor violinist crazy week after week in rehearsal, saying profound things like, "Ooh, that passage sounds just like something or other, but I can't think what." Or: "That's really weird." Or: "That sounds like Brahms." Or: "That sounds like Fauré."Or: "This piece is kind of "Franck Sonata-y." Etc. 

I say all this partly to document that this is a common part of my musical experience - hearing something else in what I'm hearing. Speaking more broadly, this is what humans do all the time, as I described in one of my first and favorite blog posts, "Hyperspace." I suspect that a significant amount (between 5% and 95%) of musical pleasure comes from the way listening lets our minds play with patterns and memories and shadows of one bit of music (and/or experience) we hear in another. It's not that I'm consciously trying to figure out where Elgar's language came from - it's that I can't seem to help but listen that way. (Teaching music history, which sometimes seems like one big string of "see, composer X borrowed that gesture from composer Y" statements, probably doesn't help.)

OK, so what did I hear? Well, this "treading water" passage in the first movement reminds me a lot of a passage from the first movement of Brahms' third violin sonata.


And there's something in the harmonic language (especially of the third movement) that reminds me of Fauré's first piano quartet. I haven't nailed down the specifics here (if there are any), but I definitely feel a kinship in the way each final movement coda builds up from a low ebb point:


The second movement of Elgar's sonata is, to quote myself from above, "really weird." Listen to its tipsy main theme that keeps getting passed nervously back and forth between violin and piano - like neither knows what to do about it. ("Here, you take it." "No, really, you should take it."...)

Perhaps my saying "it's really weird" is a recognition that this doesn't really sound like anything else I know - maybe it just sounds like Elgar.

But, the most unmistakable connection happens in the middle of that quirky slow movement; a yearning Romantic theme stops by and it sounds a LOT like a passage from Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3: 

The melodic/harmonic similarities are striking: each passage starts over a fully diminished seventh harmony and features a descent of m2, then a M2, then a leap up a M7 over a more stable harmony, followed by a continued stepwise descent. (Of course, a leap of a seventh, in this otherwise descending stepwise context, is really just a continuation of the descent with the register leap used for expressive effect.)

This Elgar passage drove me crazy through multiple rehearsals because I knew it sounded "just like" something else, but I never programmed Mendelssohn into my mental GPS while searching my memory bank. The Mendelssohn passage is somehow more "Romantic" than I tend to expect from Mendelssohn. (That's my own mistake for underestimating how Romantic Mendelssohn can be - I mentioned in this post that a passage from one of his teenage string symphonies sounds like Mahler to me.) Finally, one day I brought the Elgar score home, played those measures for my wife, and tried humming what I was hearing. She gradually started humming a long, winding tune that ended with the Mendelssohn bit above - she'd played Mendelssohn 3 in her youth symphony days, so perhaps it's more a part of her than it is of me. I can't say whether or not Elgar had made the same connection consciously or unconsciously. 

The other "other" I heard in Elgar's sonata is a bit more subtle, even "engimatic." When I finally got around to practicing the often awkward third movement, I found myself repeating these bars over and over. (Well, I was sort of repeating them - the big leaps in the left hand weren't always coming out the same, which is why I kept re-attempting them.)
The strange thing is that the circled L.H. notes just double what's going on in the R.H octaves., but it was only through the struggle of leaping for them that this little melodic idea (up a M3rd, up a P4th, down a m7th) sent my brain off to Elgar's famous "Enigma" theme:

This is a less obvious connection than the Mendelssohn one - the intervals aren't exactly the same since the circled melodic pattern from Elgar's own Enigma Variations begins with a minor 3rd, and the harmonic contexts are different. Still, for some reason I found it to be a gateway from one Elgar piece to another, and afterwards I found it impossible not to hear shadows of "Enigma" when I played those bars from the violin sonata. This, by the way, is a good example of a musical gesture that is felt as much as heard; if you look at the Violin Sonata passage, the L.H. leaps from the bass grace notes get progressively larger leading up to the high note so that the sense of "reaching" (longing, yearning, hoping) is palpable.

It was that physical sense of reaching which unlocked the Enigma Variations connection, and to be really specific, it was the circled notes below from "Nimrod" that always came to mind, from a passage which is basically all about exploring the descending 7ths from the theme. (Remember, the Elgar-Mendelssohn link was about ascending 7ths, for what it's worth.*)

Again, the important point is that I wasn't looking for this kind of connection - the fact that Elgar led me to Elgar probably suggests something more than just a sequence of three intervals; it's as if the violin sonata already had my brain fixed in an Elgar space into which other Elgar tunes could easily wander. Or, maybe I've stumbled on the elusive answer to the whole "Enigma" puzzle - although I don't really know what that answer would be. 

But wait, there's more! That's all the deconstructing of the violin sonata I have for today, but I found Elgar popping up in another unexpected place recently. The Norton Anthology of Western Music, which provides the backbone for my music history class, features a kooky, "everything but the kitchen sink" scene from Meyerbeer's grand opera Les Huguenots. When the fiery Protestant Marcel interrupts the chorus with some grumpy recitative, he gets his own special accompaniment via solo cello double-stops (apparently intended to suggest a Baroque continuo-style, à la another Protestant named Bach). The first time I heard this passage...

...I immediately thought of...wait for it...the opening of Elgar's Cello Concerto

The link here is pretty obvious, as much about gesture and the sound of those gutsy double-stops as a melody or harmony, but I did wonder if I've just had Elgar on the brain, so I played the Meyerbeer passage for Wife of MMmusing and asked what it sounded like. "Elgar cello concerto?" said she. Sure, she's got a natural cello bias, but at least I know I'm not the only one who hears this. The question is, had Elgar ever heard the Meyerbeer?

Did you know Elgar is an anagram of Large? Yep, so it's time to look for "large picture" lessons from these Elgar investigations. What have we learned here? Well, aside from me admitting that I don't know my Elgar so well, I think the most important takeaway point is that we are (or, at least, I am) always listening with a whole world of musical associations at the ready, ready to help us make sense of what we hear. That matters because those associations also likely have a lot to do with how we evaluate what we hear. Since I don't know Elgar's output all that well, I'm inclined to make sense of what he's written by hearing it in relation to other music I know. On the one hand, that can be seen as an unfair bias - shouldn't Elgar's sounds be evaluated on their own merits? But on the other hand, there is really no such thing as "on their own merits," at least not practically speaking. It's ALL connected.

Which means I've suddenly made my way to a larger point I mean to explore more fully some day - namely, that though I am clearly sympathetic to postmodern deconstructions of how we hear and experience the world (e.g. Bach's music sounds greater and more meaningful to us than it otherwise might because of cultural conditioning), I'm surprised at how often postmodernists just leave these deconstructed messes behind as if there's something wrong with loving something for culturally embedded reasons. I think this lies at the heart of what it is to love classical music (or just about anything we love via culture) - this big sense of connected-ness, the way in which one musical work calls out to another, the way in which we listen within these wildly divergent but related frameworks.

There's plenty that's wrong with "classical music culture," but there's nothing wrong with loving something in part because of a wider sense of connection/recognition. (I'm talking about connections much broader than just tune links.) Does this make it harder for a new composer to break into the club? Almost certainly, and that's not good, but that's a problem for another day...

* To top it all off, the Elgar 2nd mvt theme with the rising 7th (the one that sounds like Mendelssohn) is being recalled in the 3rd mvt when the piano plays that "Enigma" theme with the descending 7ths. I know this all sounds impossibly geeky, but the geekiness is just noticing the details about an experience of "rightness" that I suspect is pretty common. Listen:

P.S. If you're interested in exploring the Elgar sonata more fully, you can download a free score and mp3 here. That's the recording (with Viviane Hagner, violin & Tatiana Goncharova, piano) I used for the samples above. The "Nimrod" performance by Ben Zander and the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic is available for free here. That recording also features the best Meditation from "Thais" you'll ever here, featuring the then 16-yr old Stefan Jackiw.

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