Edward Elgar, Modernist

Edward Elgar, Modernist

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
pp. xiv + 255. Paperback reprint, 2009.
doi:10.2277/0521862000
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Book description

The first full-length analytical study of Edward Elgar’s music, this book argues that Elgar was a modernist composer, and that his music constitutes a pessimistic twentieth-century assessment of the nature of human being. Focusing on Elgar’s music rather than his life, Harper-Scott blends the hermeneutic and existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger with music-analytical methods derived from Heinrich Schenker and James Hepokoski. In the course of engaging with debates centred on duotonality in musical structures, sonata deformations, meaning in music, the nature of tragedy, and the quest narrative, the book rejects poststructuralist and literary-theoretical interpretations of music, radically interprets Schenkerian theory, and tentatively outlines a new space – a Heideggerian ‘clearing’ – in which music of all periods can be understood to operate, be experienced and be understood. The book includes a detailed glossary which provides the reader with clear definitions of important and difficult terms.

Book reviews

Aidan J. Thomson (Queen’s University, Belfast), Music & Letters 89, no. 1 (2008): 134–9:

His project is … ambitious: to offer an alternative both to the biographical ‘old’ musicology of previous Elgar scholarship and to the post-structuralist thought that underpins much ‘new’ musicology. … In terms of music qua music, these are the most in-depth readings of any works by Elgar to be found in literature on the composer, and detailed study of them is most illuminating. … [T]he analysis is excellent; the hermeneutics are provocative; and the methodological approach … is a laudable attempt to transcend the nihilism of some post-structuralist writing. … [T]he originality of the author’s approach ensures that his book will be an important addition to research on Elgar, Schenker, and musical aesthetics more generally.

Heather Wiebe (University of Virginia), Journal of the American Musicological Society 62 (2009): 231–43:

Harper-Scott aims at nothing less than hermeneutic reform. … [an] important approach to the question of modernity for Elgar and other composers of his generation.

Hugh Wood, Times Literary Supplement, 19 March 2008, 3–5:

I … am grateful to [Harper-Scott] for making me listen to [Falstaff] again. … directness and clarity in discussing it … a particularly limpid and acute discussion of the relations between music and literature involved in programme music.

Nicholas Jones (Cardiff University), Review-article, Musical Times, 147, no. 1899 (Summer 2007): 81–8:

Harper-Scott’s rather bleak interpretation of these works is given added credence by his dependence throughout the book on the philosophy of the German existentialist Martin Heidegger … This is all rather exhilarating stuff for the reader, but it is also deeply thought-provoking. … Edward Elgar, modernist is an important publication and has many things to offer the reader who has an intelligent, enquiring mind. Like a Schenkerian analysis, the book has many layers; like Heidegger’s hermeneutical circle, it presents its argument in such a manner that ‘we are always understanding’—the circle is constantly being reformed. … [I]t will be interesting to see how Harper-Scott develops his original and striking ideas in other works of Elgar, but it will also be fascinating to notice if his arguments and analytical techniques will be applied to other modernist music of this period. The identification of the Augenblick in Elgar’s music, for instance, is obviously full of potential. … Harper-Scott’s writing style—which is full of vim and vigour—is one that you very quickly warm to, and … [t]he book is also full of ironic asides and witticisms.

Ivan Moody, International Record Review, February 2007:

This very remarkable book will, I hope, be the beginning of a reassessment of Elgar and his position in the history of European music. … Though it may appear a formidable task, and is, indeed, not accomplished without the use of heavyweight philosophical and analytical tools … the book is immensely readable on account of Harper-Scott’s lively prose and sense of irony. … The challenge Harper-Scott has set himself is both original and substantial, and … this magisterial study, having revealed Elgar’s use of ‘immuring-immured tonality’, as opposed to directional tonality, as indicative of the quintessentially modern anti-heroic absence of definitive victory within his structural and narrative thinking, does away with the escapist tub-thumper Elgar has so often been supposed to be.

Relf Clark, The Elgar Society Journal, March 2007:

The analyses are unprecedentedly detailed and penetrating, and Elgarians of earlier generations are bound to regret that such things were not available years ago. … Elgarians are likely to find this a disturbing volume, not least because its formidably articulate, erudite author does not appear to be a member of the Elgar establishment. … Although this is not an easy book, it is not as difficult as cursory examination might suggest. … its importance cannot be doubted. There is a very real sense in which this is the first book about Elgar’s music: the days of the ‘Malvern Hills’ kind of commentary would appear to be numbered. A most auspicious debut.