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The Music Makers, by Sir Edward Elgar

Music / No Comment / August 4, 2010

Aged 55 when he composed The Music Makers, Elgar would live  for a further 22 years after it received its premiere. Even so, right from the rising and falling figure at the outset, its orchestration conveys a predominantly autumnal, melancholy atmosphere. Perhaps he was sensing already that most of his major successes were now behind him?

The Music Makers is the last of the three more or less conventional songs for chorus and orchesta I have been considering in this short series. It includes a contralto soloist but her role in the piece is not huge; most of the narrative is given to the choir. At about four times the duration of Blest Pair of Sirens, however, it is certainly the most extended.

The ode set by Elgar was composed by one Arthur O’Shaughnessy, who has otherwise left little lasting impression on English literature. It is far from the quality of John Milton’s At a a solemn music set by Hubert Parry.

Some of O’ Shaughnessy’s verses, indeed, are little short of doggerel:

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities

And yet  other verses have a visionary quality, to which Elgar surely responded:

Wandering by lone sea breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams:
World-losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:

Elgar simply transcended the limitations of the verse with his musical inspiration and mastery of orchestration.

The Music Makers has also attracted criticism for its extensive quotations from Elgar’s other works: the symphonies, the violin concerto, The Dream of Gerontius and, perhaps most extensively of all, the Enigma Variations. This is perhaps key to why the piece feels autumnal; Elgar appears to be looking back rather than forwards.

Yet such sentiments are actually belied by the text, which talks of ‘the glorious futures we see’ and:

Bring us hither your sun and your summers,
And renew our world as of yore.

For the performer, however, all of these quotations provide an opportunity to sing along with some of Elgar’s most memorable tunes. The Music Makers gives an impression of what a choral version of the finale to the First Symphony might have sounded like, as well as a legitimate opportunity to sing Nimrod.

Yet The Music Makers is so much more than a kaleidoscope of ‘greatest hits’. The first entry by the chorus feels very exposed. It has to sing ‘We are the music makers/And we are the dreamers of dreams’ very quietly after broken chords on the two harps  has died away choral.’

Like the opening Kyrie eleison in Bach’s Mass in B minor, the phrase comes to rest with a cadence that makes it feel entirely self-contained. It isn’t, of course; with a fleeting reference to Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures, the orchestra soon carries the music on its way, building and tearing down Nineveh and Babel, watching as soldier, King and peasant work together as one and depicting today thrilling with a past day’s late fulfulling.

The Music Makers, then is a work of contradictions; a yearning for a brighter dawn mingled with melancholy; bustling brass, off-beat syncopations and quicksilver accelerations in tempi towards loud climaxes soon followed by very quiet, still and seemingly heart-rending recitatives. It is at times self-absorbed but never self-centred. Unlike his friend Richard Strauss, protagonist in his own A hero’s life (Ein Heldenleben), if Elgar depicted himself in any way in The music  Makers, it was not as a hero but as a visionary:

O men! It must ever be
That we dwell, in our dreaming and singing,
A little apart from ye.

It is doubtful that even Elgar could have forseen just how much the  political and social order he knew would crumble with the outbreak of the Great War, just two years after The Music Makers saw the light of day.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of reflections, occasioned by a concert by the Somerset Chamber Choir. I look forward to your considered responses.

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