wed 28/09/2022

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

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.

Elgar's disappearance from the £20 note was cause for one of our more dubious musical doyens to berate "Elgar’s antediluvian Little Englishness" - a reminder to those of us who find in his music what Sir Colin Davis here calls the ambiguity of great art that Elgar is still an easy target when it comes to pigeonholing.

Once past a busy opening sequence with music that hardly anyone will recognise (the ballet music The Sanguine Fan), Bridcut wastes little time in going to the heart of his argument - though he starts, paradoxically, with one of those sitting ducks, the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1. There's springy David Owen Norris to demonstrate at the piano how the real Elgar reveals himself in the tune that was only later to become "Land of Hope and Glory". Good Lord: drooping sixths, chromatic restlessness, contrapuntal complexity - when did we last get all this fearlessly explained in a telly documentary?

But I hope it works for everyone. I think it should, because in effect the musical sequences, though they often have people talking over them, are explained as we go through them. And the candidates are so obviously sincere, looking extremely soulful as they listen attentively and/or give magnificent interpretations, from young Edward Gardner with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, James Burton of Oxford's Schola Cantorum and the vivacious Natalia Luis-Bassa, wowing folk in Venezuela when she conducted the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in the Second Symphony, to Sir Colin, Sir Mark Elder and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The cue here perhaps comes from a telling and surprising sound clip in which Ralph Vaughan Williams takes us through the opening of Elgar's First Symphony, explaining how it "looks all wrong" on paper but "sounds all right... a mystery and a miracle".

Bridcut wisely goes not for chronological biography, but for theme. We move swiftly but not sketchily from Elgar's iconic infancy and his sense of privacy to his various approaches to religion. Did you know that mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary had to be omitted from all Worcester performances of The Dream of Gerontius? How many Elgar biopics would home in on the Jewish shofar as it so resplendently sounds in the sunrise music of The Apostles? Had you thought much about Elgar's very detailed portrait of Judas in that work as a reflection of his own doubt and his frequent suicidal thoughts? I hadn't.

But there I jump ahead. Before this we get witty montages on Elgar's camera-vanity and his moustache and, more seriously longterm contrasts between Elgar's plain, maternal wife with his other Alice - Stuart-Wortley, the "Windflower" of the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony. I've always been a bit sceptical about ASW as love interest, thinking of her more as muse perhaps, but the way Bridcut presents their correspondence and interlaces it with far from fey footage of anemones being pressed in books, as Elgar did, made me think again. As I think we now all will about the last great love-flowering of the 74-year-old composer for thirtysomething violinist Vera Hockman.

This is because Bridcut pulls out his trump card, a previously unseen "love letter" from Hockman to the composer four months after his death, which leaves us in no doubt how deep their bond was. Well, says Elgar biographer and true gent Michael Kennedy, "we'll all have to rewrite our biographies now". Adjust them, certainly.

What the composer's supposed eye for the ladies doesn't divulge is the physical side: there's no hint, for instance, of the sexual passion Janáček felt in old age for the younger, married Kamila Stösslová. And I can't quite set aside two flimsy pieces of evidence pointing to a quite different end: an old lady in Herefordshire gossiping that "Sir Edward always had an eye for the young men," and the fact that Elgar quoted a theme he'd written for his homosexual friend Frank Schuster in The Music Makers at the words "wrought flame in another man's heart". Well, romantic friendships with other men were certainly central to Elgar - Rodewald and A J "Nimrod" Jaeger, as a young scholar discreetly hints, also included - and so that, too could mean nothing in sexual terms. Still, I don't see why reactionary Elgarians should cry horror at the very suggestion.

That's not to rebuke Bridcut for not including these more tenuous possibilities in his documentary. The complex, many-sided composer is present at every turn he chooses to take. The filming of the concert sequences is haunting, and there's even a wry little tribute to the horseman on the Malvern Hills as seen in Ken Russell's temperate but perhaps slightly overrated old Monitor film. As I've suggested, the choices of music are surprising.

Bridcut has also caught his interviewees at their most wistful; perhaps the most moving of all the scenes in which the musicians listen to the music is the one when Elder, clearly hearing for the first time the spooky choral partsong "Owls" with its nihilistic "nothings" magically delivered by Schola Cantorum, says, "I can't believe the music's by Elgar." The more we hear, the more many of us feel exactly the same - and Bridcut sympathetically implies that he's among that number.

Watch the trailer for Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask:


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.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters