Why Elgar?

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For many years now Edward Elgar has been the main inspiration for my music making and growing passion of music.¬†For those who aren’t familiar with Elgar’s life story, he was the son of of a piano tuner and lived in Worcester for his early years. He has become the definition of English music and his cello concerto has inspired and astounded performers for generations.

Elgar is an inspiration for all of us. Self-taught in his younger years, Elgar learnt to take inspiration from his surroundings, most notably the Malvern Hills and the Worcestershire countryside. Elgar spent so much of his time ‘living and ‘being’ in order to ‘fix the sounds’, his music reveals a freshness and ingenuity that can so quickly be related to a scene or emotion. Through his deep relationship with nature, Elgar was as much an artist and painter as composer. He painted the sounds he saw and not the sounds he had learnt were correct and beautiful. Elgar lived his childhood surrounded by his siblings and left composing from the countryside in ‘the reeds’.

Music is an entity which derives not only from your heart, but from the way your heart reacts to the environment you are surrounded in. Elgar learnt what true love was before he learnt about the theory and rules surrounding music. This immersion in nature was a relationship that would remain in Elgar for the rest of his life. Even when in London, Elgar pined for Worcestershire and its beauty. Elgar knew where his inspiration came from and in that environment composing came as naturally to him as talking. As performers of Elgars music, can musicians like me only understand his motivation behind his music if we experience the environment for ourselves? Anyone who has walked on the Malvern Hills can appreciate the huge sense of power and and yet vulnerability you experience being face with a huge expanse of country either side- rather like performing an Elgar symphony!

Elgars’ choral music so often encapsulates a certain natural image, for me at least. Of course, his choice of words to set his music to also has an impact, but the textures of voices instantly create an image in my mind. For example, one of the 4 part-songs,’ There Is Sweet Music’, instantly creates the image of a frosted valley, the different voice parts bouncing from the hills either side. The regular phrasing and slow tempo reveal the calm and unscathed condition of the environment, Elgars’ use of imitation reinforces this echo effect. The music ends very softly, the word ‘sleep’ is repeated between male and female voice parts until it lands silently, perhaps just as the final leaf of the autumn assumes its place on the frosted ground.

My interpretations and musical decisions are of course merely inspired by my experience of ¬†nature and perhaps photography and art of this part of nature. By broadening our knowledge and asking our emotions how it responds to images and experiences, we can relate these emotions to our music making. If we learn about the place that Elgar was most inspired, we can combine this inspiration with our personal interpretations and create beautiful image. Just as Elgars’ countryside was different each time he saw it, as is our interpretation allowed to be as varied and exciting as we please. It is, however, still important that we perform this interpretation in knowledge of the composers intention of inspiration, whether this be a poem, book or artwork.

My love for countryside and exploration of new emotions comes with my love for Elgar. Every note he wrote, though subconscious, was inspired by his experiences and passions. We can connect to our inner selves just as Elgar did simply by experiencing the same level of love and passion he discovered on the Malvern Hills.

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Music, Philosophy and Jeanette Winterson

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For Christamas this year, I bought Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiography, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, for my pianist friend, Jasmin. I thought I would interest Jasmin because of Jeanette’s inspirational story and her connections with Oxford, (Jasmin is awaiting a response from her Hartford interview!) and so it did. So much so in fact that Jasmin forced me down and said, “Hattie, read the introduction to this book, it will change you”. I read the introduction and it was certainly enough to feed inspiration for a blog post!

I’m not going to provide a very in depth discussion around one of Jeanette’s many philosophy’s, only talk about one thing she said that has stayed with me. Jeanette talked about how she doesn’t want to call Oranges an autobiography because she used her own life only as the base for a story. A story, she said, which she hopes can turn her own life into something which has meaning for other people whose experience is ‘Nothing like your own’. What struck me the most was the idea that ‘Memory is not a reconstruction or a filing system, memory is a recreation’. She talks about how we remember the same things differently each time and how the past is not fixed and as we develop and change, so do our memories.

It suddenly stuck me that this idea is vital in understanding and performing a piece of music. Our ultimate goal in performance is to perform as we can imagine the composer would have designed it. Every cellist who puts their heart into the Elgar concerto will get very different responses back. We need to remember that these great works are memories. For example, many people see the cello concerto as a memory of the war or tribute to his wife, Alice. So often musicians get tied down in looking for an ultimate perfection in performance. We need to remember that each and every one of us has something to give back and every musician has the beautiful chance to retell and sell a memory. Perhaps the more successful performers aren’t necessarily the ones who have the natural talent, but the ones who have imagined a memory and found the most exciting, expressive way to communicate it. Just as we cannot remember a memory perfectly and constantly unchanged, why should we be expected to perform a memory in this way?

Jeanette, we love you and thank you dearly for bringing us back to life!

Keep on creating everyone, never shy away!

Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Hattie