ELGAR: The Spirit of England, op. 80. KELLY: Elegy for Strings "In Memoriam Rupert Brooke" (1915). GURNEY: War Elegy (1920). PARRY: The Chivalry of the Sea (1916). ELKINGTON: Out of the West (1921).
Susan Gritton (soprano); Andrew Kennedy (tenor); BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/David Lloyd-Jones.
Dutton CDLX 7172 () (DDD) TT: 69:00

Singing the pity of war. The horror of the First World War spawned some great art, both from its participants and from the older generation as well. The younger artists (Hemingway, late Debussy and Les Six in France, Weill, and Hindemith, for example) tended to throw over the traces of the Nineteenth Century, while the grand old men (Elgar, Parry, Chesterton, Kipling, even Beerbohm) lamented the loss of the past.

Artistically, England has usually been an anomaly, in that it is fundamentally conservative. Most of its Romantics -- Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example -- stressed that they had done nothing new, even as they helped create a cultural revolution. Byron considered himself a disciple of Alexander Pope. The shapers of British musical Modernism -- Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Walton (Britten's the exception) -- seemed to feel uncomfortable with their most radical statements. Vaughan Williams joked at his own expense over his grinding Fourth Symphony, and Walton, in the music after his Stravinskian Facade and Hindemithian early concerti, paid homage to both Sibelius and Elgar.

For me, Elgar stands as the great composer of the Great War. Undoubtedly, it affected him. One reads letters of his anger and distress over the killing -- most memorably, the slaughter of horses -- at the Front. In the cello concerto especially, one hears deep sorrow over the waste of promising life and the blight on the future which is the cost of every war.

Finished in 1917, The Spirit of England -- its title alone, that is -- sounds like the tub-thumping jingoism that has tarred Elgar's reputation to this day. Elgar may have looked like Colonel Blimp, but the resemblance ended there. Indeed, the piece almost never got written because Elgar rejected certain lines as over-the-top xenophobia, and self-congratulatory besides. He did manage to accommodate those lines to his conscience, however -- and not the other way around -- and the work proceeded. Elgar set three poems by the Georgian poet Laurence Binyon, an ardent fan of the composer's, and this resulted in a relationship that bore further artistic fruit -- Elgar's music for King Arthur. Elgar's sets the opening lines, "Spirit of England, ardent-eyed," to music that soars, the nobilimente that he seems to tap into so effortlessly. It could easily fall flat into smug patriotism, but Elgar's music rarely settles on one thing. More than most composers, Elgar's music captures the evanescence, fluidity, and changeability of thought, the "currents of the soul." The score moves us to apprehension, regret, resolve, all in the space of a few measures. I confess that the dominant emotion I get from Elgar is a profound melancholy and sense of loss, and it's the rapid transition from mood to mood that sends me that signal. Critics, especially those following E. J. Dent, have tended to dismiss this cantata as mere "war work," not from the top drawer, as if Beethoven's First Symphony became dreck because of the Missa Solemnis. Of course, Elgar wrote better than this, and that's what's so amazing, because this work is both so beautiful and so humane. This, by the way, is the first recording of the piece as Elgar conceived it, with both a soprano and a tenor soloist. Unfortunately, the work is so big and so visionary that it dominates the entire CD. One finds oneself constantly comparing the other works to it, with good and bad results.

Charles Hubert Parry's Chivalry of the Sea sets a poem by Robert Bridges commemorating those British sailors lost in the Battle of Jutland. The choral writing, as superb as you might expect, shows where Vaughan Williams got much of his early technique. Indeed, parts of Chivalry wouldn't sound out of place in the younger man's Sea Symphony. Nevertheless, both the poem and the music try to sell a morally dubious proposition: that the sailors did not lose their lives in vain and were glad to lose them, because they were brave. Wars, even necessary wars, always waste lives for results that aren't worth the cost of those lives. Even one of those deaths was an enormous waste of the best of us. Whether they gave their lives willingly (or not) doesn't absolve us. World War I was fought to "end all wars" -- admittedly, a laudable goal. But the goal hasn't been achieved by that or any subsequent war, which makes frivolous wars irresponsibly begun all the more reprehensible. It comes down to the fact that Parry and Bridges talk about pipe dreams and excuses. Elgar, on the other hand, talks about tragedy.

Ivor Gurney, one of the great English songwriters, studied with Parry and Stanford. He was gassed in the war and this, coupled with a predisposition to mental instability, led to shell-shock and eventually institutionalization. His War Elegy is the first orchestral work of his I've heard. Gurney knew combat first-hand. The War Elegy gives off unrelenting grief. However, Gurney did best in the circumscribed compass of the song. He tends to get lost in larger structures, and his ideas seem constricted, struggling to break free into full expression.

Lilian Elkington, a pupil of Bantock, stopped composing when she got married. Her music rises no higher and sinks no lower than her teacher's. Out of the Mist honors the Unknown Warrior. A fairly conventional piece, it lacks anything memorable.

On the other hand, you can mention Frederick Septimus Kelly's Elegy in almost the same breath as the Elgar. Kelly, an Aussie, studied with Tovey. He wrote a bunch of "nice" songs suitable for the parish, but obviously his talent didn't lie there. He went to war and died on the Western Front in 1916. The Elegy, by far the best work of his I've heard, was also probably his last, as he completed it in hospital as he recovered from wounds suffered at Galipoli. Kelly dedicated the piece to the memory of his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke. Kelly was present at Brooke's burial, and the piece evokes that scene. Given Kelly's songs, afflicted with the weak-sister chromaticism of Gounod and Franck, this piece surprises. In evoking Classical Greece, Kelly comes up with an idiom all his own, caught in the no-man's land between late Romanticism and early Modernism, and nothing at all like Tovey. Beautiful, elegiac, it shows a composer who probably grown into a major voice of English music. He and Butterworth may have counted as England's greatest musical loss of the war.

The Elgar has had previous recordings, notably one led by Alexander Gibson on Chandos, coupled with the Coronation Ode. It's a very suave reading, but slightly uninvolved. Lloyd-Jones sings rougher, but he sings. The Parry and the Kelly receive committed advocacy. I don't know what could have been done to untangle the Gurney or to make the Elkington interesting. Nevertheless, recommended.

S.G.S. (September 2007)