Land of Hope and Glory: an English anthem written by our most German composer

31 July 2014, 16:30 | Updated: 4 August 2014, 10:05

At a time of year when 'Land of Hope and Glory' is traditionally played to scenes of unrestrained patriotism, it’s fascinating to think that Elgar, who is often thought of as the most jingoistic of English composers, is also the most German.

Edward Elgar’s musical influences were all Austro-German. He had no interest in English folk music, once telling a woman rash enough to ask if he incorporated folk tunes in his music: “Madam, I write the folk songs of England”.

Elgar, though a patriot, had considerable reservations about WW1, because German musical culture meant so much to him. Indeed, his music had achieved considerable success in Germany; The Dream of Gerontius was better received first time out in Germany than at its Birmingham premiere.

He did his duty, however, and when asked to provide patriotic music to support Britain’s beleaguered allies - three for Belgium, and one for Poland - one of the compositions was Polonia, a fantasia on Polish airs in the style of Liszt, that should be far better known.

LISTEN AGAIN: Elgar and the Great War with David Mellor >
David Mellor (Sun 3 August) 

I’ll be playing a selection of Elgar’s war music in my show this Sunday at 7pm – and when you listen to it, you’ll appreciate that the music he composed at this time, especially The Spirit of England, a setting of three poems by Laurence Binyon, reflects his doubts and uncertainties about the conflict.

The mood of The Spirit of England is not remotely jingoistic; rather, it is stoic, and imbued with premonitions of suffering. One of the three poems, ‘The 4th August’, includes a section that Elgar thought unfair to the Germans, and he only finally agreed to set it in 1917, two years after the other two poems.

Benjamin Britten, the exact opposite of Elgar politically, and of course a pacifist, thought so highly of The Spirit of England, that he wanted to record it. It was only his declining health that prevented this happening. 

Towards the end of the war, depressed and half broken, Elgar retreated to a remote house in Sussex, and composed three wonderful, but also shamefully neglected, pieces of chamber music – including the Piano Quintet - prior to embarking on the Cello Concerto

Most poignant of all is Elgar’s setting of Kipling’s poem ‘The Lowestoft Boat’, which he recorded in 1917 with the baritone Charles Mott. No one escaped close kinship with victims of this terrible war in which so many millions died. Mott, after touring with Elgar, returned to the front, and was killed within a few weeks. I include this recording, which sounds well for its years, as a tribute to him, and indeed to all who died in this most wasteful and inexplicable of conflicts.

In light of some of these pieces, I wonder what Elgar would make of the jingoism and patriotic fervour that ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ elicits in audiences today, 100 years after the outbreak of First World War?

This all leaves me wondering - is there a piece of music that better sums up Britishness today? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.