Dust-Up over Elgar—and the New Musicology—in “Times Literary Supplement”


Ralph Locke

I’ve been asked by Jonathan and Phil to offer an occasional
blogpost this summer.

Here’s something that caught my eye at From Beyond the Stave, which is the blog run by Michael Richards of the academic
book publisher Boydell and Brewer. (The
word play in the blog's title is clearer if you use a long “a” when pronouncing
“stave”—which is the five-line thing that in America we call the “staff.”)

Hugh Wood is a noted composer and critic in England.  On March 19, he objected strenuously in the pages of the Times
Literary Supplement
 to objections by American musicologist Byron Adams to
Anthony Payne’s much-heralded completion of the Elgar Third Symphony.  Along the way, Wood also took a swipe at musicological work written in a spirit of cultural critique.  (The immediate context, or perhaps pretext, was the recurring focus on the British Empire—e.g., provincial/patronizing attitudes toward the peoples of India—in various chapters of one of the books Wood was reviewing, Elgar and His World, edited by Adams.)

Objections to objections tend to stir up more objections. Of the three letters that followed, Richard Taruskin’s was predictably quotable,
accusing Wood—and perhaps English music critics more broadly—of “defensive
insularity, anti-intellectualism, know-it-all complacency, proud ignorance,
[and] blimpish spite.”

An Englishman (and noted authority on ancient Roman literature), Leofranc Holford-Strevens, wondered plausibly
how long the rage for this new symphony by, or we should perhaps say “by," Elgar will continue.

Hugh Wood
then wrote in turn, objecting to Taruskin’s objections.

Oddly, I don’t recall that any of these objections, whether to Elgar or to the New
Musicology (if we must use that unfortunate term), have been mentioned in
musical blogs other than From Beyond the Stave or in
postings on any musicological e-list. Surely
there’s room for another round of objections to the objections to the . . .

I can say that I’ve listened to the
Elgar-Payne Third Symphony (at least two superb recordings
are available) and that I was taken with it, despite my initial doubts. Maybe Anthony Payne is a composer whose output I ought to get to know better. Or is he the Süssmayr of our age,
capable perhaps of producing pages that will endure—but only when he is working with
material left behind by, as T. S. Eliot said admiringly of Ezra Pound, un miglior fabbro (a greater craftsman)?


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Dust-Up over Elgar—and the New Musicology—in “Times Literary Supplement”

  1. Jonathan says:

    OK; I’ll take the bait. Perhaps the entire debate is more anglocentric (and thus of less interest to those in former colonies) than might first appear. Here’s Peter Williams, from one of your links:
    “Perhaps what prompts such reactions is some atavistic fear that traditional British musicianship, though now seriously diluted by the west-to-east currents, not only regards itself as superior but actually is, or was. Accusing Wood of “stereotyped national vices” is very revealing and (I think I am right to say) would cause real offence in the opposite direction, east-to-west.”
    Well. “Traditional British musicianship, now seriously diluted by the west-to-east currents.” Surely I’m not the only North American to hear this as, if not racist, nationalistic in an almost embarrassingly Victorian tone? Then, immediately afterward, the dark warning that the “stereotyped national vices” remark “would cause real offence in the opposite direction, east-to-west.”
    Obviously, one wouldn’t want to offend a diplomat like Mr. Williams.
    About the only thing I can think to add are the immortal lines of Flanders and Swann: “The English, the English, the English are best; I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.” The difference being, I suspect, that F & S were writing in a spirit of fun and genial self-satire. The exchange re: Wood did seem to become, rather quickly, about something other than Elgar, and in some ways even distasteful. RT’s adjective “blimpish” seems quite well chosen.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    To continue from Flanders & Swann:
    The English are noble, the English are good,
    And clever and modest and misunderstood.


  3. Brian McGill says:

    Irrelevant to the above exchanges perhaps, but everyone involved, except, naturally, Hugh Wood, should read his article about ‘English Contemporary Music’ appearing in a Pelican published in 1955 entitled “European Music in the Twentieth Century.” His dismissal of post-war Walton is both absurd and unsound.

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