sun 09/08/2020

Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask, BBC Four

Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask, BBC Four

John Bridcut's documentary probes the great composer's uneasy, troubled soul

Elgar consciously manipulated the public image of the country gent; but the truth was very different

Where is the real Elgar to be found – in his boisterous self-portrait at the end of the Enigma Variations, the warm, feminine sentiment of the Violin Concerto and the First Symphony’s Adagio, or the nightmares of the Second Symphony? No doubt in each of them, and more. John Bridcut’s painfully sensitive documentary hones in on the private, introspective Elgar, the dark knight of "ghosts and shadows", always with the music to the fore. And by getting the good and great, young and old of the musical world not just to talk but to react to the works as they hear them, he may have broken new ground.

Bridcut pulls out his trump card, a previously unseen "love letter" from Vera Hockman to the composer four months after his death

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Missed the start of this film, but will certainly hit the iplayer. A fascinating portrayal of the man, deeply researched and brilliantly presented. I also enjoyed seeing the commentators of mature years fill with youthful passion in describing the music. It explains why we have many sprightly elder musicians!

This programme had great potential but was rather disjointed, badly edited and just skimmed the surface of such a great man. Why were we shown only a couple of very short glimpses from Jerrold Northrop Moore, the definitive biographer of Elgar? How frustrating and disappointing!

I thought this an excellent film, and it certainly shed some new light on Elgar's personal relationships, which were fascinating. I loved the clips of musicians listening to the music- particularly Ashkenazy and The Music Makers. The highest recommendation I can give is that immediately after watching it I piled all my Elgar CDs up next to the Hi-Fi and started listening!

I loved this programme and have watched it twice in two nights. What music! What a privilege to see conductors of such calibre clearly almost speechless themselves. What love stories - about his wife, the other Alice and revealing also Vera Hockman. My only reservation is that Alice Elgar was really the "co-star" of his music. He wrote when she died in 1920 that none of it would have happened without her: she was quite a fine artist herself (poet). What a programme! I can hardly get over it. I think I have fallen head over heels in love with Elgar's music (if not with him).

David Nice has provided a wide-ranging and appreciative critique of a major film; I only take objection to his reference to Ken Russell's Elgar film for Monitor (BBC TV, 1962, available as a BFI DVD) as being "temperate and somewhat overrated". I was the producer of that hour long documentary and wrote most of Huw Wheldon's superbly delivered commentary. I'm unsure what David Nice means by temperate. The film showed Elgar as a deeply divided and moody man. It was an overview of Elgar the composer and I concede that it was thin on biography. We had only Percy Young's book and some memoirs to guide us. We left out Windflower (Lady Alice Stuart Montagu) and knew nothing about Vera Hockman. But I do quarrel with John Bridcut's oft repeated assertion that the public image of Elgar is currently restricted to the Pomp and Circumstance personality. Our Monitor film was the trigger for the Elgar revival in the 1960s and the image projected was of romance (eg the boy on the pony, followed by the bicycle ride and later the open car with the dogs) all racing up the Malvern Hills. Our vision was of Elgar's Catholic mysticism (eg the three crosses on the Beacon for the Gerontius Sanctus music). And of his agony when Land of Hope was used as a World War One marching song. Ken's Elgar is a poetic documentary and I would say that it packs a more powerful emotional punch than Behind the Mask. All the same, John Bridcut has made a fascinating and totally different kind of film and I haven't seen a better piece of work on television concerning music since Bridcut's first arts documentary, Britten's Children. The quality of his witnesses was outstanding - what they said, the way they were photographed, the sequences of them listening to music - all exemplary. Not a dud moment. Everything said was insightful. The choice of music was also very exciting, notably the use of unfamiliar choral works and the close examination of The Apostles and The Music Makers, neither considered front rank Elgar; musically they may not be his best work (though I personally love The Music Makers) but they were immensely telling here because they provided keys to Elgar's complex personality. The use of the letters was also very striking. Michael Kennedy's discovery of Windflower's letters made me kick myself that we had not enquired about them when filming at Elgar's birthplace a decade earlier. The desperate poem of abandonment left behind by Lady Alice, Elgar's scribbled reference to VH on the 3rd Symphony manuscript (reminiscent of Mahler's message to Alma) the letter to E.E. written by Vera four months after Elgar's death, these were all revelations and beautifully filmed. As were the specially shot and very atmospheric sequences of orchestral and choral performance, pointing up how flat and uninteresting are the orchestral relays which we have to make do with in the "live" Prom telecasts. I believe Behind the Mask will be valued not only for its insights on Elgar but also as a work of art in itself; it will be my nomination (and I'm sure many other people's) for the Royal Philharmonic Awards coming up soon.

Your very even-handed observations rather put my two all too cursory adjectives on what was a pioneering piece of work somewhat to shame, Humphrey. I owe a qualification: I was only just born when the film came out, so my appreciation of it came many years later (I saw it at a Barbican screening, and I suppose I was just a little impatient with the hagiovisual approach of the presenters, which of course was hardly your fault). And of course you are right: it is unfair to judge with hindsight. A film can't usually be re-edited; a book can, and I remember the enormous differences between Michael Kennedy's initial Portrait of Elgar and the second edition. So, yes, it was poetic and covered aspects which I'm sure, especially in 1962, hadn't been much taken into account. And the Malvern sequences were obviously, to use a much-overused word, iconic, otherwise JB wouldn't have referenced them. So, respect both to this and to the immortal Golden Ring, which I watched recently with great pleasure.

Wonderful film. Tried to get the playlist of all excerpts played, but since I live on the continent I cannot access the BBC sites details. Can anybody out there offer some help? Thanks in advance, Stuart de Booij

I have only just seen this very great film on Elgar & found it immensely moving and brilliant. I have not been able to find how/where I can purchase the DVD - can anyone help me with this information ??

In a year when Elgar Symphony 1 is the set work for AQA Advanced GCE Music, It seems a pity that this programme (excellent when I saw it some 12 months ago) is no longer available on i-player, nor on DVD. I just hope the BBC plan to re-run it soon. was it ever released on DVD, and if so is it available? It would, as I say, be a wonderful additional resource.

I asked John Bridcut. His reply as to whether the documentary would be out on DVD:'I'm still hoping so, but not immediately.  Hoping very much it will be next year.' We hope so too. He has one on Karajan due to be screened later this year.

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