by Allan Fish
(UK 1962 60m) DVD1/2
Aka. Elgar – Portrait of a Composer
We walk like ghosts
p Humphrey Burton d Ken Russell w Ken Russell, Huw Wheldon ph Kenneth Higgins ed Alan Tyrer m Edward Elgar
Peter Brett, Rowena Gregory, George McGrath, Huw Wheldon (narrator),
It seems strange to think that when Ken Russell’s groundbreaking and career pointing dramatised documentary went out in 1962, the lives of composers on screen was limited to cinematic biopics such as the awful A Song to Remember and Gance’s moody Un Grand Amour de Beethoven. Half a century on we can look back and see it as a watershed; without it we wouldn’t have had the other Russell composer pieces on large and small screen that would occupy most of his work for the next decade or so.
Elgar was different to what would follow. The Debussy Film had the irreverence that would characterise, and to some flaw, The Music Lovers and Lisztomania, while Song of Summer – Delius took a look at the composer that would look ahead to his Mahler. Elgar was more than any of these, but watching it fifty years on, with its strait-laced account of a man unable to make a name for himself in pompous late Victorian and Edwardian England, it reads remarkably like the spoof documentaries so common today. What it succeeds in doing is dextrously mixing still photos and newsreel and early film footage with silent tableaux recreations, all accompanied by the great man’s music to create a symphonic melding of music and visuals, including rolling tracking shots of Elgar as a boy on a pony or a man on a boneshaker moving through the Malverns. It not only gets to the heart of Elgar, to whom, as Wheldon’s narration tells us, “music is in the air…all around me”, but in doing so he also succeeds in creating a quite literal family album of Britain at the height of its imperial power and at the start of its imperial decline. The composer is seen to be an artist in tune with the mood of the time, but in a country whose hierarchy are out of step with it, a composer who is feted in Germany but not at home, and who came to taste a bitter irony in the years that followed, almost prophesying the cataclysmic doom to come with the death of Edward VII. Here was a man who wrote the most patriotic of all British pieces, only to loathe what it had come to represent, abhor the idea of his country at war with the country he held such affection for and gratitude towards, given honours that meant little to him and which he had buried with his wife in her coffin.
Elgar was always the outsider, the Catholic tradesman’s son who kept being refused admission into polite circles until it became impossible to keep him out. All the great pieces drift by as if in a dream – The Dream of Garontius, the Cello Concerto that may have been written to be performed half a century later by another unhappy soul, the immortal Enigma variations and those Pomp and Circumstance marches which conjure images from everything from Yes, Minister to A Clockwork Orange to Donald Duck on Noah’s Ark. Other aspects are narrated in a way to make one think Michael Palin and Terry Jones had them in the back of their mind when writing Ripping Yarns (composing in a major-general’s bell tent, chemistry experiments in a back shed). In others it’s impossible not to be moved by the bitter irony of that march accompanied by walking wounded in the Great War. Russell’s command of his subject so sublime as to make the emotions soar like the kite Elgar flies over the Malverns, so that if it’s been copied to death since, it still remains as fresh as an English rose garden in May. The immediate temptation on finishing it is to seek out the other Russell composer pieces done for the BBC’s Monitor and Omnibus. But first take a detour to another BBC enfant terrible, Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen, and then to Tony Palmer’s film about Purcell. The last act of that flawed piece, combining Dryden and Purcell, so illustrates the feeling Russell had first captured thirty years previously, one can see the dying Elgar, sitting up in his bed to look at Worcester Cathedral, murmuring “England, my England.”