Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and the ‘nostalgia’ problem.

It happened again the other day.

Another piece of English music – this time Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture – casually described by a BBC Radio 3 presenter as ‘nostalgic’.

It’s happens, in fact, quite a lot.  Previously on Radio 3, with Elgar’s Sospiri. A few years ago I saw a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis conducted by Charles Hazelwood, after which he addressed the audience to comment that it was ‘an exquisite piece of damp nostalgia…but of the best possible kind’.

I was going to reserve Corymbus as a place for positive advocacy of neglected music. But I really want to write about this, because the whole ‘nostalgia’ trope is both annoying and misplaced. Worse, a stereotype is being set about Britain’s musical heritage which is selling it short.

I don’t doubt that the nostalgia label is also used for music from other countries, but I hear this trope a lot particularly in relation to British composers of the early 20th century. Even when it doesn’t explicitly use the word ‘nostalgia’, it insinuates it nonetheless. The reasoning, most commonly, seems to go something like this:

The early 20th century was a time that Britain was changing – mass industrialisation, WWI, etc.

The composers of this time wrote music associated with folk song, the countryside, and other things representing ‘old England’.

Their music contains passages that are lyrical, bittersweet, and suggestive of longing.

Therefore this music must be mourning a fast-vanishing England, a pre-industrial, pre-war Arcadia, etc.

In other words, nostalgic.

The first three points are broadly relevant. But the conclusion, though superficially convincing, is in fact sheer speculation – except it is rarely qualified as such.

Now, it’s easy to identify music that most people would agree is in some way sad, likewise music that is jovial. But nostalgia, with its relationship to the past, is something much more particular.

That’s not to say these composers never wrote nostalgic music. In Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, he sets poetry by Matthew Arnold which is quite explicitly nostalgic, and to great effect. It’s an extraordinary, haunting piece that is worthy of its own blog post. But without the evidence of a text, or some other concrete link to the past, we are on tricky terrain ascribing nostalgia to instrumental music.

My key point is this: simply because Elgar and Vaughan Williams were writing in changing times, does not mean they must have been expressing feelings about the past when they wrote music which is wistful. There are many longings of the human heart, and nostalgia is just one of them. Indeed, Elgar’s Sospiri, which is Italian for ‘sighs’, had a working title of Soupir d’Amour – sigh of love.

Furthermore, by early twentieth century, Britain had already been industrialising for a long time, this was not new. And while I don’t doubt the profound effect of WWI on composers, it is surely wrong to conflate a longing for peaceful times as nostalgia. The past then, as now, had plenty of wars and other horrors to offer us. Vaughan Williams, who studied history at Cambridge, would have known this better than most.

In the case of the Tallis Fantasia, Mr. Hazlewood’s label of nostalgia is particularly baffling. It’s true that Tallis’ 16th-century hymn tune, and the characteristically folksong-esque passages in the middle of the piece both represent old England. But to read these inclusions as nostalgia spectacularly misses the point. In genuine nostalgia, you would expect the past to take on an idealised, sentimentalised form.  But both Tallis’ hymn and the folk-like material are in the minor key, by turns grave, melancholic, passionately heartfelt. If there is any message about the past from these passages, it is surely how life’s uncertainties – with all the fear, soul-searching and quiet fortitude they entail – have always been with us. One of the reasons this piece has such enduring appeal is precisely because it isn’t nostalgia, but is actually expressing something timeless and much more truthful about the human condition.

But in any case, why do I think all this matters? Surely it is pretty trivial?

Well ‘nostalgia’ is not a neutral, value-free term. It is belittling to a composer: suggesting that he/she preferred to wallow in the past rather than having the strength of character to look to the future. This is, no doubt, why Mr. Hazelwood qualified his statement with ‘but of the best possible kind’. To encourage the idea that composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams wrote out of a longing for the way things were – however complex and wide-ranging their repertoires – diminishes them as musical figures of continued relevance. It also discourages other readings of why their music might reflect a sense of yearning or longing, among its many other characteristics.

That’s not to say that you won’t find yourself holding feelings of nostalgia during certain pieces of music. That is all within the realm of the subjective experience of listening, and should be acknowledged as such: music has a wide range of resonances. But we should also be aware of conditioning too. For example, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard Elgar’s music set to TV items or adverts which employ nostalgic themes – even if, confusingly, it’s nostalgia for Elgar’s time from today’s perspective! – and this may have a subconscious role to play in how we think about his music.

Britain’s custodianship of its classical music heritage, for a long time pretty woeful, is genuinely getting better. But the sloppy thinking embodied by this ‘nostalgia’ trope is a relic of the attitude among certain parts of the classical music establishment (for want of a better term) of not feeling the need to take figures like Elgar and Vaughan Williams particularly seriously. Much work remains to be done on composers like Bax and Rubbra, and you can be sure this blog will be visiting them.

So it shouldn’t be too much to ask to not project lazy assumptions onto the works of composers – it doesn’t do anyone any favours. If you think a piece of music is nostalgic, stop and ask yourself why. You might find the answer is not so simple, and much more interesting.