‘The Fifteenth Variation’: Transcript of VW’s contribution to Elgar Centenary Programme on the BBC from the recording

Letter No.: 
VWL3505
[May 1957]

‘The Fifteenth Variation’: Transcript of VW’s contribution to Elgar Centenary Programme on the BBC from the recording

My first knowledge of Elgar’s music was a performance - shortly before 1900, of the Variations.  I had been advised by a friend to go to a Richter Concert and hear a work by Dohnanyi, of all people. So I went. The Dohnanyi was all right. But the Variations: Here was something new, yet old: strange, yet familiar: universal, yet typically original and at the same time typically English. 
Well, having heard the Variations, I was pining to find out more; and I journeyed to Birmingham to hear the first performance of Gerontius. And I have to confess, perhaps to my shame, that at first I was bitterly disappointed. I now know I was wrong. Not that I am yet reconciled to the opening, or to the Demons – in spite of their virtuosity: but that the beauty of the rest more than outweighs those places.
Stanford was wiser than me, and on the strength of Gerontius obtained an honorary degree for Elgar at Cambridge; and travelled up to Leeds to press for a performance at the next Festival.
The first time I ever addressed Elgar personally was not by word of mouth, but by a “Dear Sir” letter, early in the 1900s, when I wrote and asked him to give me some lessons in composition; and received a polite answer from Lady Elgar saying that her husband was too busy at the moment, and advising me to apply to Bantock.
The first time, I think, that I actually had a conversation with Elgar was at a performance of his Violoncello Concerto, when he approached me rather truculently and said - “I am surprised, Dr Vaughan Williams, that you care to listen to this vulgar stuff!”  The truth was, I think, that he was feeling sore over an accusation of vulgarity made against him by a well-known musicologist who, Elgar probably knew, was a friend of mine.1  
I did not meet Elgar again for some years, and then he was always gracious and friendly.  He came to hear a performance of my Sancta Civitas, and gave it generous praise.  He told me that he had once thought of setting those words himself “But I shall never do so now” he said. To this I could only answer that this made me sorry that I had ever attempted to set the words myself.
Now I will, if I may, finish off with a technical point: in the introduction to Elgar’s First Symphony, the melody is given to fairly heavy woodwind and violas.  The violoncellos and double basses play the bass détaché, while the inner harmony is left to two soft muted horns. 
Well I think if a student had brought that score in to any composition teacher, he’d have put his blue pencil through it and said: ‘This will not be heard’. And to my mind, when I look at it still, it looks all wrong, but it sounds all right.  Here indeed we have a mystery and a miracle.2


 1. This was Edward Dent, writing in a German paper.
 2. VW wrote to Michael Kennedy about this - see VWL3509.

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General notes: 

This transcript has been taken directly from the recording of the broadcast by Jerrold Northrop Moore and differs from the transcript sent to UVW by the producer, Charles Parker – see VWL3488.

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Cobbe 713
Original database number: 
5705xb