The Riddle that Broke History’s Back

What do you get when you put the best four composers ever to come out of London in a room together?

-Two Germans, one Italian, and a Bohemian.

By the end of the 19th century, English culture had become the butt of every nationalist joke. They were known to Germans as Das Land ohne Musik, a people without a music—and by extension without a culture—of their own (III, 802). England was undergoing a dry spell. A centuries-long dry spell in fact—”since the death of Purcell in 1695, the English had been without a native-born composer of wide international repute” (III, 804).*

But my poor excuse for a joke above is not the “riddle” that I refer to in the title of this post. I’m of course talking about the wildly compelling composition that turned the nationalist tide back in favor of the English: Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. How did Elgar’s riddle capture the imagination of the international music community? The discourse around the piece has certainly been fueled by the mystery of the enigmas that the composer built into the piece: anagrams in the movement titles, and the unuttered “principle Theme” that lurks unheard—but thoroughly imagined and reimagined by critics and historians to the present day. And of course it has everything to do with Elgar’s finely crafted music. But RT points out that the nature and timing of Elgar’s success was due specifically to the championing of a certain famous conductor, who premiered the Variations on a prestigious concert series in London.

Plenty of canonic composers have been helped in their rise to prestige by the promotion of influential friends. Schumann’s praise of Chopin (“Hat’s off, gentlemen…”), and Haydn’s to Leopold Mozart (“Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name.”), are the first two that come to mind. And as Nicholas Vazsonyi has recently taken an entire book to point out, Wagner made it a point to be his own “influential friend”—he was a self-promoter and marketer of the highest order.** That Elgar was given an influential blessing is not out of the ordinary, then. What is worth pointing out is that for the entirety of the long nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth), the arbiters of taste were almost invariably German. Elgar’s case was no different. The influential friend who programmed his Variations in such a visible way was Hans Richter, the it conductor of the day, and a German.

Nationalism was one of the prevailing aesthetic narratives at the end of the nineteenth century. And make no mistake, it was a narrative, a story created by men to understand the past and shape the future of art. In the nationalist narrative, Germans asserted their primacy of authorship again and again, claiming their roles as experts of the phenomenon both at home and abroad.  “Greatness,” Taruskin sums up, “was still Germany’s to bestow” (III, 807)

*As Taruskin goes on to point out, in one of his cheekier turns of phrase: “That widely-accepted ‘fact’ was in fact a non-fact.”

**Vazsonyi, Nicholas. Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


1 Comment

  1. Matthew Roy says:

    “Greatness was still Germany’s to bestow.”

    I find it fascinating that during Elgar’s lifetime Great Britain was the greatest colonial power on the globe, referring to the entire century as Pax Britanica (although wars were fought almost every year). Political change and more liberal policies, which always seem to accompany any nationalist movement, happened relatively quietly during the advent of Victorian society, a society that in many ways attempted to resurrect the ancient age of chivalry.

    By many accounts: greatness.

    And yet this musical famine from the 1600s to Elgar around the end of the 19th century. What does that speak to? Did colonial matters have England too spread out to focus on itself? Were Victorian mannerisms not conducive to honest and well-crafted music?

    Maybe the Haydn cult was too powerful. 🙂

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