Phoning It In, Again

I wasn’t familiar with Elgar’s Piano Quintet, Op. 84, until I spent a few minutes (only about fifteen) on the widetubenets, digging up all kinds of information. For instance, his Opus 84 was completed in 1919, but begun before his String Quartet, Opus 83. The piece that followed both of those was his beaten-dead, but famous, “warhorse,” the Cello Concerto, made famouser by preeminent recordings with Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier, Jaqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma. The quintet in A minor is the longest of Elgar’s chamber pieces, coming in at about 35 minutes long, and was composed at his home in Brinkwells, Sussex. Lady Alice Elgar suggested that the piece may be programmatic; she noted in her diary that the first movement may represent a group of trees in Flexham Park, near Brinkwells.

According to legend, these trees comprised the remains of Spanish monks who had engaged in sacrilegious ceremonies in the park. In correspondence, Elgar too had described the first movement as "ghostly stuff". Doubt has been cast on the legend, focusing on the lack of record of any Spanish religious settlement in the area. But this obscures the point that, whatever the factual basis for the legend (and what legend contains more than a grain of truth), Elgar appears again to have drawn his inspiration from the natural beauty of the area surrounding the cottage at Brinkwells.

Interestingly, Op. 84 was dedicated to music critic Ernest Newman, who wrote for many publications including the, then, Manchester Guardian, which is now, simply, the Guardian. He was also the author of the gargantuan, four-volume “The Life of Richard Wagner.” Unfortunately, the only writing sample I found is a paraphrase taken from a 1911 New York Times review:

The old argument averred that the writer of poetic or pictorial music is like the child who adds to his rude drawing of an animal the words: “This is a dog,” writes Ernest Newman in the London Nation.

(Ernest Herman)

Fun stuff. I wonder if this viewpoint had anything to do with Elgar’s supposed “tree legend” program. A joke, perhaps?

I found nearly twenty recordings of the Quintet made within the past fifteen, or so, years, over at Amazon. I also found a number of recent performances, though not as many as, say, his Enigma Variations or the Cello Concerto.

Lastly, there is only one video of Op. 84 on YouTube, only about four minutes of the 13-minute first movement, Moderato-Allegro. It’s a really cool-sounding clip. I wish there was more, because the piece seemed cool as well. But, if you’re interested, there are many available recordings to download at iTunes, or Naxos.

Pow! Only fifteen minutes of research. One quarter of an hour. The piece is...how long again? 35 minutes? My research took half, half the time that it would have taken to listen to the piece.


Now consider this:

The evening ended with a big-boned, big-hearted performance of Elgar's Piano Quintet, with Judith Gordon as the sensitive guest pianist. This unusually textured three-movement work is somewhat of a rarity on concert programs, but these players were equal to its demands, both in its surging stormy passages and its many moments of swelling, sighing lyricism.

1) “Unusually textured?” How was it unusual? Did you listen to it? I only heard four minutes, but couldn’t find one unusual texture. Maybe the problem is in our contradictory definitions of what constitutes an unusual texture. Mind you, by 1919, I am also used to this, and this and this and this and this and this. To what unusual textures were you referring?

2) I would like to rephrase your “but” phrase: “...but these players were equal to its demanding surging stormy passages and its demanding moments of swelling, sighing lyricism.” I just wanted to highlight that you’re emphasizing that the piece was demanding and that the performers handled themselves well. But here’s my problem: Did “stormy passages” and “swelling, sighing lyricism” describe the piece adequately? Hmmm. Sounds like you phoned it in on that one. I mean, your descriptors could apply to practically any piece ever (see above and below “this and this and this and this and this and this”).

The work was completed just after World War I, yet there is something poignant in the way the music seems to cling to an older tradition of 19th-century Romantic chamber music, as if the world that tradition described could live forever, as if it had not already disappeared.

I know that this was your impression, but...the tradition had already disappeared? In 1919? To the contrary: this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this. That’s why it was sad? Come on. You’re better than this.

Sorry, but you phoned it in! No question about it. I found a ton of pertinent, fun information about Op. 84 in only fifteen minutes. How long did you spend with it? The time it takes to pop some microwave popcorn? Since it was the last piece on the long program, did you just...leave? Were you tired? Long drive home? Were you fed up with the “Beat L.A.” chants during intermission? Was your nose bleeding? Did you simply not like the piece and didn’t want to investigate it further? That’s something you usually do well. What happened, man?


Aaron said...

Not to pick nits, but I think in the last bit you quoted it's the pre-War world that had "already disappeared." The tradition(s) that described that world (admittedly a weird phrasing - I don't usually think of traditions as having a descriptive function, although I suppose if I think about it I can how they might) might still be in vigorous health after that world was destroyed.

Just my two cents, there.

Marc Geelhoed said...

A) What Aaron said. It's the world described that had disappeared, not the tradition, and

B) You listen to four minutes and decide that's enough to dispense judgement? You're sloppier than those you criticize, and

C) The "pertinent, fun" information you are looking for is at the top of the review, not the bottom, about the concert series the work appeared on, and

D) Boil down your background paragraphs on the work to five words, and you'll have a better understanding of what is required when writing for a non-specialist audience.

Empiricus said...

Awesome comments--just what the doctor prescribed, I suppose. I do have to qualify myself a little, however.

RE: Mark

A) I concede this point whole-heartedly. Good dig, Aaron.

B) Previously, I have listened to the whole piece numerous times via CD. What I was trying to convey was that there was only one available four-minute clip that didn't sound out of the ordinary concerning texture, while hopefully stressing the fact that I found the clip within the fifteen minutes of tooling around the internet. Basing my judgment on that one clip would be foolish, indeed, but I thought that it was, more or less, a good representation of the piece on the whole. Therefore I stand behind my assessment of Jeremy's "unusual texture" assertion, though I could have been clearer, as you've pointed out. Again, good dig.

C) I understand that the "pertinent/fun" information, according to you, is at the top, about the concert series. I, on the other hand, am not convinced of this, manly because this fun information didn't require Jeremy's presence at the concert; that stuff could have literally been phoned in. Whereas the descriptions of the performance did require a warm body, as well as the descriptions of the pieces, which also would benefit greatly from some research, like Jeremy usually does so well. This,I think, is why it was a treat to finally put him in our "sloppy" little pantheon (we've never criticized him before, because we like his writing very much). This leads me to

D)I thought the piece's background was very interesting. I could have researched the other two on the program and the results would have been the same, for the most part. But yes, it is difficult writing for a non-specialist audience. And yes, I would probably have a tough time boiling all that background down to five words. This is why, if I may reiterate our pseudo-mission statement--this is why we like your comments, even if you take us to task for being lazy or whatever. All we ask for is dialog. That said, this is why this particular post exists; you nailed it on the head. It is my perception that, often enough, pandering to a non-specialist audience (whatever the definition of that may be) is not necessary, especially to this high of a degree. The audience is willing to understand, but gets watered-down and sometimes meaningless information. For instance, I can't count the number of times when I've introduced myself to a "non-specialist" as a composer. And they shoot back blank stares. Or my favorite, an uncle of mine who is genuinely interested in opera, bought a recording of Wozzeck, liked it, then asked "what was twelve-tone about that," as if the method precludes enjoyability. But, this is what he knows because he reads his local concert reviews.

So Mark, your criticisms of me aren't off the (ugh) mark. We, in no way, claim to be professional critics. But, I think that we can, at the very least, bring up issues that might engender discussions toward a good. So I humbly thank you for your two cents.