Entertainment

The Composer of 'Land of Hope and Glory' Would Have Hated Everyone Buying It Today

Edward Elgar's composition has become the latest battleground in the reactionary right's culture wars, but the man himself was totally at odds with the British society that has come to venerate him.
August 26, 2020, 4:54pm
Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar circa 1911. Photo: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Edward Elgar battled discrimination and snobbery to bring a beating, bleeding heart into English classical music. Today, he is remembered as nothing more than the composer of the ode to empire, “Land of Hope and Glory” – something he would likely lament were he alive to do so.

The Daily Express, Laurence Fox, Andrew Neil and other leading lights of the gammon intelligentsia were triumphantly aflutter today with the news that Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” has reached the top of the iTunes download chart.

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The song has long been a staple of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms, and it was announced on Tuesday that this year’s Proms will feature an instrumental version rather than the traditional singalong, which would prove difficult while maintaining social distancing.

With its call for the British Empire’s boundaries to be set “wider and wider still”, the song has proved controversial as Brits have reckoned with the history of imperialism. And with the reactionary right always keen for another skirmish in the culture wars, its soldiers leapt into action on Tuesday to defend an assault on British cultural heritage being led, on this occasion, by precisely no one.

The BBC has promised the choral version will return as soon social distancing measures are relaxed. But those words fell on deaf ears for patron saint of divorced dads, Laurence Fox, who immediately called on his 225,000 Twitter followers to get Vera Lynn’s rendition to number one in the charts. “Would the BBC then have to play it?” he asked. By Wednesday morning the song had topped the iTunes chart.

Had he not died almost a century ago, Elgar would probably have let out a weary sigh at finding his legacy reduced for the umpteenth time to a thumping melody attached to an absurdly jingoistic lyric. By the end of his life he was lamenting that “All the king wants is ‘Land of Hope’.”

While Elgar did not shy away from his de-facto appointment as scorer of the official soundtrack to British imperialism, he was totally at odds with the society that had come to venerate him, and wished that the words AC Benson had written to accompany his composition were less nationalistic.

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Born to a lowly piano tuner in the Malvern Hills near Worcester, he did not fit the mould of a British composer. They were expected to be “well-bred”, to study at either Oxford or Cambridge and to produce music that had barely evolved for hundreds of years. Nobody could accuse Elgar of high breeding, and he was never going to have the means to attend Oxbridge.

But having spent his youth tinkering with the instruments in his father’s shop, by his early twenties he was hired as conductor of the local asylum’s orchestra for the princely sum of £32 a year – approximately £3,000 in today’s money. The local cathedral took note of the innovative polkas he composed for the inmate orchestra at five shillings a tune, and invited him to conduct their choir. With an innovative flair that was a sign of things to come, he began writing choral music that behaved like a surround-sound stereo, passing the music from one side of the cathedral to the other.

Elgar having the poor taste to have been born not only working class but Catholic during one of the peaks of English anti-Catholicism meant it took many of the country’s tastemakers even longer to give him his due credit. But before long it became impossible for those who encountered his music to deny that he was a native-born musical talent of a calibre that had not been seen in England for longer than anyone could remember.

Across the Channel in Europe, music had been in a state of frantic evolution throughout the 19th century, stretching the boundaries of both musical and emotional expression further than many would have thought possible 100 earlier. For much of the century, English music failed to follow suit.

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But with its melodies that leapt upwards with yearning before sinking in disappointment, Elgar’s music was an expression of his own tempestuous personality, which was often ecstatic but at times bordered on suicidal. When struck by a particularly moving or effective passage in his own music, he would turn to his wife and declare: “If you cut that it would bleed!”

His music bled all over its audience. It had the potential to lift our dreary and grey country into the realms of passion. But instead, his legacy has become a dull, thumping hymn to ever-expanding empire. This is a tragedy. Elgar should be remembered as an underdog outsider who overcame class and religious prejudices to leave his mark on the world. Instead, he’s seen as synonymous with the worst kind of small-minded, Downton Abbey, “nation of shopkeepers” bullshit.

The cruellest irony of Elgar’s legacy is that he despised the plain-speaking, “call a spade a spade”, “keep calm and carry on” attitudes that the “Land of Hope and Glory” brigade pride themselves on.

In a lecture at Birmingham University, he disappointed his audience by tearing to shreds the “English commonplace” mentality:

“The commonplace mind can never be anything but commonplace, and no amount of education, no polish of a university, can eradicate the stain from the low type of mind which is the English commonplace,” he declared to a shocked room. “An Englishman will take you into a large room, beautifully proportioned, and will point out to you that it is white – all over white – and somebody will say, ‘What exquisite taste.’ You know in your own mind, in your own soul, that is not taste at all – that it is the want of taste, that it is mere evasion. English music is white, and evades everything.”

I wonder what Laurence Fox might say if Elgar told him his music was too white?