Elgar Can’t Be Vulgar

It is written down. Irrefutable. Intended. Definitive and revealing. A permanent record. Every thing of importance to us is in writing. When we are born, we are given a birth certificate. When we graduate, we have a certificate to prove it. Soon after, we see a mountain of documents thrown our way, a contract of employment, contracts for purchases of the car, the house, and whatever that get us into debt – yes, bank loans are also in writing. Some of the most important pieces of documents in writing for me would include my passport and the title deed to my house. Without them, I won’t be able to leave the country or live in the building I call home. My marriage certificate was once important to me, it legalises my relationship with The Mrs and provides her with legal rights to half of everything I own. It is of little importance to me now, somehow. We do not need written words on a piece of paper to legitimise our lives together, not after thirty eight years of living under the same roof and under the banner of man and wife. Important documents spelling out what we own and owe. Definite and clear, it obviates the need for interpretation – there is no risk of misunderstandings. Yet, that is not always true.

Edward Elgar’s cello concerto in E Minor was written just after the First World War. Contemplative and autumnal, this elegiac work is my favourite cello music. I bought Jacqueline du Pre’s CD boxset for my sons when they were about six years old. That was the first time I heard Elgar’s cello concerto. The best time to listen to it is during the quiet of the night. Alone. It is hair raising stuff. Spine tingling. A sure way to activate the tear glands that produce the hormones prolactin that makes us cry. For me it is the one piece of music that is packed with indescribable depths of sorrow. You cannot help but feel the dark pain and heart-tearing suffering of humanity. du Pre was our idol. Vivacious and full of life, she was a giant in the cello world. We loved the documentary about her by Christopher Nupen. That was the first time I saw her play. On the VHS tape. It was in black and white. I did not know that the gown she was wearing during her Elgar concerto with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra was a striking red colour. For me it was her playing that made me fall in love with Elgar’s music. It was her obvious passion for the cello that attracted me to the instrument – its ability to speak to me even if it’s just an open string being played. Her lively, honest and carefree playing captivated a worldwide audience. Carefree, but never careless. Not all music is in written form. But it would be correct to say all orchestral music is written down. The composer wills it in his score. He informs the musicians how his music should be played. How it should sound. For instance, Vivaldi informed us clearly the sounds of the four seasons. His “winter” is chilly, bleak and the cold is piercing, with the strings sounding especially metallic. Gustav Holst described the planets in his seven movement orchestral work. We get to hear how our solar system sounded in Holst’s mind. They are all written down, every note, every rest, musical accidentals, articulations, dynamics, ties and slurs. The conductor reads them, understands what the composer wanted and demands it from the orchestra. Obvious markings on the score dictate what the composer’s ideas were. A pp here and an ff there. A fermata or an sfz. A fermata is a pause. But, how fleeting should we rest? The composer didn’t say. No other markings except for a dot. The same uncertainty with a dot above a note. How brief should the pause be? It was not a subito forzando that caught my attention in Elgar’s cello concerto. It was not a “ Suddenly with force” but what did Elgar ask for in his music where he had markings of ff with accent and ten. all at once? Is the effect as strong as an sfz? The one cellist who observed that unreservedly was du Pre. But, to many cellists, it seems incongruous to play that in the context of the music. In the depths of despair and melancholy, it sounds jarring and out of place to apply the note with sudden force. The accent seems wrongly placed, despite the fact that Elgar wrote it. Elgar couldn’t have been vulgar. Maybe he did not mean it. A mistake? In the midst of a stupor? But it is written down. Undeniable. Deliberate. Intended. Yet, many cellists do not observe it. They ignore that marking. They do not play it the way Elgar wanted. It sounds incongruous to the flow of the music. Over time, the players got accustomed to how it was played, without the accent and tenueto, and the listeners learned to accept that was how the music should sound. If you listen to du Pre’s recording of Elgar with the accent and tenueto, the note will sound rough, yet it was exactly how Elgar wanted. Now, I have to relearn how it should actually sound, as intended by Elgar.

On December 19, Donald Trump was impeached by the House. He blew his top at the whistle blower who told the world of Trump’s illegal use of his power to solicit the support of a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. The one very important incident that triggered the case for impeachment was the phone call with the Ukraine president during which Trump asked Zelensky for a favour to announce the investigation into Trump’s major domestic political rival, Joe Biden. Major military aid had been withheld pending Zelensky’s announcement into the unsubstantiated and long debunked Biden corruption in the Ukraine. A visit to the White House was also contingent upon Zelensky doing the favour asked for by Trump. The White House issued a transcript of that “perfect” and “beautiful” phone call whilst disparaging against the whistle blower. The five page transcript is a written edited report of the July 25 telephone conversation, with many segments missing although Trump vowed to release a “fully declassified and unredacted transcript” of the controversial call. Yet, The White House and the House of Representatives are at odds with what the written words meant to their case. To the House, it was a clear case of quid pro quo, their commander in chief using his immense power to gain a personal advantage whilst risking national security. To the White House, the favour sought was a proper and diligent effort to ensure the proper use of foreign aid by the recipient country. Same set of words but with totally opposite conclusions. History will record that Trump was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, despite his top officials’ refusal to give their testimonies of what they know about the extent of Trump’s involvement in the bribery. Elgar can’t be vulgar but the same cannot be said about Trump. Now, that is written down.

Practise again. Elgar cannot be vulgar.