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My Dad and Elgar

October 21, 2010

“There are places I remember…All my life, though some have changed

Some forever not for better, Some have gone and some remain

All those places have their moments with lovers and friends I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living In my life I’ve loved them all

….” J. Lennon.

Thirty years ago I produced a series of demo sessions for a singer/songwriter. He was a nice guy. I wanted to keep him happy, as he was the source of an important jingle account. His songs were so incredibly dull that they had a psychedelic effect on time. A three minute ballad stretched into an hour.

One session I found myself playing take after take, trying to overdub a guitar solo on one of those songs. The material just wasn’t beginning to awaken the muse from iher deep sleep cycle. Like that a melody came, and I played it flawlessly. As I put my guitar down, smiling, gales of laughter came into my headphones from the control room.  I ran in to find out what the joke was. As the engineer played back my solo the songwriter said, “Can’t you hear? You just played….Pomp and Circumstance.” Just 6 or 7 notes of it, but still, very embarrassing. And odd. Why?

Sir Edward Elgar

Even thirty years ago Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” was considered the epitome of “corny”  music. Part of its bad rep was due to the fact that it was heard at graduations, more often than not butchered by the cracked trumpets and sour trombones of some high school band that was embarrassed to be seen playing it. But there was also something about that melody that was a little sickening.

Twenty years later I was again in the studio, this time in New York City.  I was talking with members of my string section as they packed up after recording some of my pieces. My concertmaster said, “Your stuff reminds me of Elgar.” I looked for signs of a smirk.

Instead he said, “Have you heard the Enigma Variations? They’re wonderful. Your stuff reminds me of them.” I blushed at the compliment.

I went home and ordered the Variations on CD. They were indeed wonderful. They evoked deep feelings in me.

My father in 1968

In the spring of 2004 my father was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. He was certain to die within a few months. In that period of terrible waiting I was mystified to find myself drawn to Elgar’s music, searching beyond the Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto,, which I by now knew quite well. I discovered his lesser known symphonies. They sounded as gorgeous and over-stuffed as old Victorian couches. And as unfashionable.  But I didn’t care. They touched something in me that needed touching right then.

I came up with an intellectual explanation for my sudden attraction to Elgar. He was popular just 100 years ago, as the British Empire was showing signs of its coming dissolution. His sweeping melodies perfectly expressed the grandeur of that Empire. At the same time they descended in long sequences which shone on that grandeur a dying light, the last rays of sunset. Grand and at the same time sad.

My father had spent his life clinging to the values of the Victorian world –where Men were Men, and Honor and Duty prevailed. My father’s last project was a three part biography of Winston Churchill, the last great figure of that era. As with all his projects he immersed himself in his subject until he was back there, living in that world. He spent the last 20 years of his life struggling in vain to finish the third volume of that series. That spring it was clear that he never would.

I concluded that in listening to Elgar I was using my medium of music to pay homage to the era my father loved.

Earlier this year I remembered listening to Elgar during that time. My explanation seemed too pat. I decided to dig deeper. I read a 750-page biography of the composer and listened to a 30 CD set of his works looking for a better answer.  I was spooked by the parallels between Elgar and my father. Both were intensely shy and subject to deep depressions which fame only worsened. Like my father, Elgar suffered the disdain of academics.

And they shared a yearning for golden times lost in the past. It bled into their work. It’s clear from interviews of those around Elgar that his precious lost times had never been that good when he actually lived them. The same was true of my father. In his telling the early years of his marriage and the childhoods of us children took on a lustrous patina that covered a very different reality.

Like Elgar, my father made his penchant for nostalgia public. The Glory and the Dream looked back fondly on the times of his growing up. His popular books Death of a President and A Brief Shining Moment were central to the burnishing of the myth of Camelot.

I had to admit that I too was a sucker for nostalgia. Much of what’s behind my obsessive writing and re-writing of my memoir are the pangs of a man for his own golden age, the glory days of the late 60s.

I have come to understand that what makes us slightly sick hearing “Pomp and Circumstance” at graduation– aside from bad intonation –is our knowledge that nostalgia is a lie. That those wonderful high school or college years whose memory has our children in tears now were never so rosy. Time will only make them rosier, and farther from reality.

Graduation March

But parents, if not their graduating children, know a truth behind the nostalgia. The truth that everything passes – our parents, our world, us. Even our children. As we cheer in pride at our children’s successful passage, we feel them passing from our lives, from our houses. As they march down the aisle to Elgar’s march it is only really time which steps forward. All of us are finally left behind. Sadness, grief, are very close on the emotional spectrum to nostalgia, but truer.

As I listened several times through 30 CDs of Elgar’s music I felt joy and childhood innocence. A sense of grandeur, certainly. Lots of nostalgia. But also real sorrow.

I was in Europe a few weeks ago, driving through Normandy. Something in me felt a desire to visit the D-day battlefields, but I resisted. It seemed somehow sick to want to go where 30,000 men slaughtered each other. My father would have gone. In fact he spent much of his life as a writer revisiting battlefields and telling of the warriors that fought on them.

As we neared Caen, France I read in a guidebook of a museum called “The Memorial.” It not only chronicled D-day and the events surrounding it, but had a section devoted to peace.  What the hell.


In the museum, in a little kiosk I watched a short film on the Battle of Britain. I’d seen the images before – St. Paul’s in flames, spitfires crashing from the skies, a great city reduced to rubble. But never accompanied by this music. It was the Nimrod Variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It’s the greatest musical evocation of grand plus sad that I know. And here as tears came, I knew that it contained sorrow. For all those dead Londoners and RAF pilots, and, yes, German Pilots.  For the lost British Empire. For my father, and for the fact that he never got to tell his version of the Battle of Britain, a story he would have loved to tell.

Nostalgia? Sorrow? Just plain corny? Judge for yourself:

Nimrod Variation – Daniel Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  1. Tom Reeder permalink

    Since you have read extensively about Elgar’s life, you probably know this: One of his first jobs was music teacher and conductor at an asylum. The ways musicians find to make ends meet are not always glamorous, as you can no doubt attest!

    • Yes, thank you for reminding me of that. His early composing career was a nightmare – teaching all day and writing at night with a splitting headache. But the music he wrote during that time was lovely.

      Far as glamour goes, my teeny tastes here and there have been more than enough, thank you.

  2. Wonderful. Amazing what our ears will “compose” on instinct!

  3. Another great post that has left me with mixed emotions. The first is a deep sadness for your father and the missed opportunities that every family regrets and the second is pride. As a Brit, I really don’t think about my country with much pride in 2010 – it feels bankrupt in both monetary and moral terms but you have made me think about its history. Perhaps it takes an American to point this out, but Elgar was a major composer in his day (perhaps the only one that Britain ever produced). I too, flinch a bit at ‘Pomp’ having once been part of a school orchestra that won an inter-schools competition with our rendition of that work! But it has a real sense of grandeur that only a people at the height of a remarkable empire could conjure. It is a period piece whose time has gone.

    And so to the Battle of Britain of 1940 and The Blitz of 1940/41. This was a time that tested the British people and they were not found wanting. I wonder whether the same could be said of today’s population?

    I understand your hesitation in visiting old battlefields but I think we all need to keep in touch with our history – it has so much to tell us.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post but also one which has made me think about what it is to be British.

    PS – on another subject entirely – are we to be treated to a piece on Nerina Pallot, as hinted at some time back?

    • Martin, Nerina is coming, very soon! My wife likes her as much as me, especially “When did I become such a…”

      You are rightfully proud of Elgar – he was the greatest British BORN composer (Handel being German.) Though some days I think Edward is as good as Handel.

      Someone said “What about Paul McCartney.” A great songwriter, but I seriously doubt he’s a great composer (though I confess that with all his post-Beatles stuff I’ve never dared try his oratorio.) Speaking of oratorios, Elgar mastered the form like no other composer. They’re long-winded for our times, but worth the time for so many great moments.

      In Paris in Notre Dame right up in the nave is a plaque commemorating one MILLION young British men who died in WW I to save France.

  4. Your descriptions of Elgar’s music have caught my interest. I’m going to have to check him out. Methinks I’ll see if I can get some of his material from my library to sample before I take the plunge and purchase any.

    The emotions you’re saying Elgar’s music evokes reminds me a bit of some of Ennio Morricone’s and John Barry’s film scores. I’ve been looking for more music like that. Your descriptions of Elgar’s music lead me to believe that his material would evoke similar emotions to Morricone’s and Barry’s music.

    • Perplexio, you are right. I believe Elgar’s music is deeper and more satisfying than either of the film composers you cite, though I do like both. Another place to look is Brahms. (Perhaps I can be of some help with a future post on him.)

      Elgar and Brahms require the listener to make some adjustments – just as reading 19th century novels requires us to endure longer sentences than we want to. But it’s worth it.

  5. I’m not sure what music could ever be appropriate for my hikes and treks through the now-empty lands were young men slaughtered each other long ago. Perhaps the next time I go, I will listen to Elgar. Thank you.

  6. Stephanie permalink

    You may be interested in Kitty Kelley’s article about unauthorized biography in the Winter 2011 issue of The American Scholar. She mentions the problems with Death of a President.

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