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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: September 2011

6 - The early choral works


Hard to bear is the poignancy of loss induced by so many once living kinds of music separated by time and change, imprisoned in obsolete genres or superseded beliefs and practices. Manifestly important music, sometimes supremely great, is cut off from roots deep-nourished in a context of social, civic, or religious usage, to be preserved in artificial surroundings, most notably the technically flawless CD. Somewhere along this shadow-line of defunctive music lie the pre-Gerontius choral works with orchestra by Elgar. Aquick glance at the lists on the back of old Novello vocal scores of their hardcore staples (mainly Handel) suffices to reveal the extended wasteland, once teeming with life, of the Victorian oratorio. Elgar's compositional growth is firmly grounded in this copious provincial choral culture. His earlier cantatas make a determined bid to join it, his later to raise and enhance it; taken together they cover almost his entire composing life, which coincides with English choral culture at its apogee.

While the two last oratorios have never quite gained the safe mainstream, Gerontius is unbudgeable. And in more general terms his reputation has never stood higher in all the years since its first peak in the twentieth century's first decade. But the pre-Gerontius pieces, for the most part clear milestones on a great composer's path to prime-of-life powers, none utterly negligible, some patently inspired, are largely neglected. That they have all been recorded goes to endorse my opening remarks: this is exhumation, not living repertory, available anywhere but in the concert hall where it belongs.