Excellence in Scholarship and Learning


Reading Elgar’s The Music Makers

Reputation, Poetry and Expression

David Young taught music history and theory at the Royal Northern College of Music, worked for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music as a consultant in South East Asia, and was Professor of Performance Studies at Kampala University and Vice-Chancellor of the East Africa University, Rwanda. He is author of Beethoven Symphonies Revisited: Performance, Expression and Impact (2021), editor of Haydn the Innovator: A New Approach to the String Quartets (2000) and his scholarly writings have appeared in the RMA Research Chronicle, Current Musicology, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and the International Haydn Symposium.

Elgar’s The Music Makers, for contralto solo, choir and large orchestra, has experienced a chequered reputation. Following its premiere at the Birmingham Festival in 1912 the work received significant adverse criticism which re-emerged over time. Criticism was levelled at the poem which Elgar chose for his setting, an ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, a poet whose reputation was later tarnished by T.S. Eliot in his ‘What is Minor Poetry?’, a literary critique long misinterpreted.


We are the music makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
    On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world for ever, it seems.


Misunderstanding of Elgar’s innovatory compositional procedure was the other main reason for the negative responses. The poetic imagery in music has been used by many composers, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss included. Elgar’s compositional method of integrating the poetic language with musical self-borrowings throughout the work not only transforms the words but offers to perceptive listeners enhanced emotion at the highest artistic level. All aspects of melody, rhythm, orchestration, leitmotiv, and tonality combine to produce one of Elgar’s greatest and least understood masterworks.

    Reading Elgar’s The Music Makers brings to the fore a prime example of how first musical performances can be misunderstood, how reception and understanding can change over time, and how the work is as relevant today as ever it was.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-78976-119-1
Paperback Price: £24.95/$34.95
Release Date: February/March 2023
Page Extent / Format: 92 pp. 216 x 138 mm
Illustrated: Yes


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