Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask

2010   BBC Four

film image
click to show large image
click to show large image
click to show large image
click to show large image

click a thumbnail to view large image

film image




The composer of Land of Hope and Glory is often regarded as the quintessential English gentleman.  But Elgar's image of hearty nobility was deliberately contrived.  In this revelatory portrait of a musical genius, John Bridcut explores the secret conflicts in Elgar's nature which produced some of Britain's greatest music. 

This film features specially-filmed performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (conductor: Edward Gardner) with James Creswell (bass), Janice Watson (soprano), Michael Laird (shofar) and Crouch End Festival Chorus; Schola Cantorum of Oxford (conductor: James Burton); Mark Wilde (tenor) and David Owen Norris (piano). 

Works by Elgar included in the film are:
The Sanguine Fan, Pomp & Circumstance March 1, The Dream of Gerontius, Enigma Variations, Dream Children, Caractacus, Pomp & Circumstance March 3, Deep in my Soul, Ave Maria, The Apostles, Is she not passing fair?, Improvisation 4, Falstaff, Symphony 1, Enina, Violin Concerto, Symphony 2, The Music Makers, Sospiri, Owls (An Epitaph), Symphony 3, Mina, Love’s Tempest

Contributors include:  Sir Colin Davis, Sir Mark Elder, Michael Kennedy, Anthony Payne, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jerrold Northrop Moore and Natalia Luis-Bassa.  This film is a co-production between Crux Productions and Prospect Pictures (part of DCD Media)


Photography Vaughan Matthews, Mike Fox
Sound Paul Paragon, Floating Earth
Production Manager Sarah Cox
Line Producer Nikki Weston
Online Editor Katie Kemp
Colourist Michael Sanders
Dubbing Mixer Jez Spencer
Assistant Producer Cat Dixon
BBC Commissioning Editor Adam Barker
Executive Producer Fiona Morris
Film Editor Samuel Santana
Written, narrated and directed by John Bridcut

(1 x 90’)

The Crux DVD of this film is available through the Crux online shop, or from Gonzo Multimedia


'Three excellent films – we’re watching as well as listening – on British composers by the documentary film-maker John Bridcut, made about a decade ago, have been issued on DVD: Elgar, The Man Behind the MaskThe Pleasures of Delius; and The Passions of Vaughan Williams.

'Bridcut, who made last year’s BBC Four documentary Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages, has a talent for telling personal stories: Elgar’s love of the woman he called “Windflower” and his insistence on having a “death bed” photo while he was in fact still alive to mastermind it; Delius’s strange marriage and taste for all things “exotic”, with all that the word implies; Vaughan Williams and the complexities of falling madly in love with Ursula, nearly 40 years younger and equally, if not more, smitten.

'Yet Bridcut’s primary gift is to bring the music of these composers alive, weaving archive footage with specially filmed performance and deft contributions from a handful of musicians well able to knock down all the myths and prejudices. These commentators are passionate as well as scholarly, among them the composer and Elgar authority Anthony Payne, the conductor Mark Elder, who puts as powerful a case for Delius as you’ll find, as well as the late Michael Kennedy and Richard Hickox and, from the archive,Thomas Beecham. Ursula Vaughan Williams, shortly before her death aged 96 in 2007 after half a century of widowhood, recalls the taxi ride in which RVW first kissed her, in 1938, as if it were yesterday. These invaluable films make you rethink the music. They are, too, engrossing to watch.'

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer

'Bridcut's pundits listen and emote.  We watch them listening.  This is supposed to be death to a documentary, but it works.  After all, we are listening too, and when Bridcut's subjects speak over the recordings, they do so sparely, spontaneously and in response to the music.  These scenes alone make this an extremely moving documentary, a genuine work of art in itself.  But more than this, Bridcut succeeds in having us hear both the known and unknown works as if for the first time, which, with such emblematic scores as Elgar’s, is a considerable achievement.'

Rick Jones, The Tablet

'John Bridcut's sensitive, absorbing film reveals startling details and new colours in an old master restored' 

Financial Times

'Bridcut’s own documentary is more than a worthy successor to [Ken] Russell’s: it is a stunning example of the genre, made with self-evident affection for, and insight into, its subject. It is also superbly accomplished from a technical point of view, and altogether revelatory as to Elgar the man and his music.  […]  All in all this is a wonderful documentary. It is beautifully shot and directed, and it deepens our understanding of a composer whose significance Ken Russell re-alerted us to back in the Sixties. At the end of Bridcut’s film he pays a nice hommage to his predecessor, with an image of Elgar, atop a white pony, ascending a Worcestershire hillside.'

Richard Landau,

'Following his magnificent 2004 documentary Britten’s Children, the director John Bridcut has again assembled the great and the good to make this revelatory film about Edward Elgar.'

David Chater, The Times

'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.'
(reprinted in full because this very gratifying review is so in tune with the film)

David Nice,

<<< Back to all films