My Dad and Elgar
“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.
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: