An imaginative trip up the Amazon with Sir Edward Elgar


"Gerontius," by James Hamilton-Paterson, 264 pages, Soho Press Inc., New York, N.Y., $19.95.

SIR EDWARD ELGAR was quite simply the first great British composer in nearly two centuries. British music between Henry Purcell and Elgar was pretty much an oxymoron, John Gay and Sir William Sullivan.

Elgar reluctantly embodied British music. He looked like a veritable Colonel Blimp. His "Land of Hope and Glory" from the first "Pomp and Circumstance" march epitomizes chauvinistic British patriotism. He stimulated a renaissance in English music. But he deplored British musical taste.

His greatest work, "Dream of Gerontius," an oratorio based on a religious poem -- now vastly unread -- by Cardinal John Henry Newman, was generally unappreciated in Great Britain until praised in Germany.

Yet "Enigma Variations," 14 musical reflections on himself, his wife Alice, and "friends pictured within," which are based on an unheard theme that remains enigmatic, was immediately successful and is, if anything, even more popular today.

Elgar is often said to reflect the prosperous and self-satisfied Edwardian England of the years before World War I, even by the Encyclopedia Britannica. He did write his "Coronation Ode" for the crowning of the Prince of Wales as Edward VII, from which emanated "Hope and Glory."

But he was already 43 when Queen Victoria died in 1901. And he thought of himself as an eminent Victorian if James Hamilton-Paterson is right in his "Gerontius," the re-creation of a moment in Elgar's life. Many of Elgar's themes came from music he "wrote" as a boy in Worcestershire, not quite midway through Victoria's reign.

Hamilton-Paterson's "Gerontius" is a remarkable work of the imagination in its own right. "Gerontius," which by the way is a name that comes from the Greek word for old man, is based on a six-week voyage to South America and 1,000 miles up the Amazon River Elgar took in the winter of 1923 when he was 66. This trip gets about a paragraph in most biographies, if it's remarked upon at all.

Elgar's wife had died in 1920 and he was afraid his creativity had died with her.

The "abominable mischiefs" of World War I had "not only ruined the world after it, but it had falsified the one before."

Elgar was bored, restless and isolated. He wondered if his life and work had meant anything at all.

"I have been to twelve theaters since I retired," he wrote to a friend. "I am so desperately lonely and turn in to see anything."

Hamilton-Paterson has written a novel, an imagined biography, a meditation on creativity and a reflection on genius.

"I tried to be as factually correct as was interesting," he says engagingly, in an author's note.

The book opens with Elgar alone in a compartment on a train bound for Liverpool and RMS Hildebrand, the jaunty liner which will take him on his cruise.

"Days, months and years had reeled past until here he was towards the end of a lifetime not going anywhere at sixty miles an hour."

He dozes and dreams.

His gerontic dream is of Simyun the stylite, a Christian ascetic who lived and meditated atop a 58-foot column in the Syrian desert. A boy climbs up for an audience with Simyun and the parapet opens to a pavilion with a doorway that reveals a cool garden and the music of fountains and birdsong and the wind.

Elgar (but, of course, not Hamilton-Paterson) is startled to find the image repeated in the Amazonian jungle where he sees a white-robed figure on a platform at the top of 60-foot dead tree peering at a thousand miles of jungle.

This stylite turns out to be an Anglican priest named Miles Moss who is a talented amateur entomologist. He climbs to the top of the jungle canopy to study exotic moths. He specifically hopes to capture a vampire moth which sucks the blood of animals.

These images of men upon pillars perhaps suggest inspiration for a new work Elgar may compose. Or they may be more general symbols of ascetic meditation, or idiosyncratic obsession, or the isolation of genius.

At Manaos, a commercial town on the Rio Negro just above where it joins the Amazon, and the turn-around point of his voyage, Elgar finds Magdalena von Pussels, a woman he had had a romance with 40 years earlier in Leipzig. She has kept a virtual archive of his work in this remote river port that is barely a niche in the vast Amazonian jungle.

As are protagonists of water-borne tales from "The Odyssey" to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to "Heart of Darkness," Elgar is on a journey of discovery, or self-discovery and perhaps reconciliation.

He muses in a deck chair on the passage of time and talent, writes occasionally in a journal and desultorily jots down a few musical notes that seem to be the beginning of an inspiration.

But he's far too grumpily English, gruff, self-indulgent, self-aware, ironically self-protective, romantic and Victorian for self-discovery. On his return to London after the round-trip to Brazil and back, he finds himself as resigned as when he left.

Lena provides perhaps the best commentary on his life during a long soliloquy at the piano after a meeting with Elgar.

"You're a baby, Edward, you always were. A brilliant baby, a genius baby; but a baby in your clamor for attention, attention, attention. You always got it, too, although it suits you now to pretend otherwise. . . .

"And while you may have changed the musical history of England you haven't touched that of Europe. It's Stravinsky now, and Schoenberg and Webern. A sad irony that. By sheer historical misfortune, you led the renaissance of English music from the tail end of a European style. . . .

"I hear an old man's self-pity which is merely an overweening egoism in disguise."

But, of course, they are the angry musings of a woman who once loved him, and does still in her way.

Not the least pleasures of Hamilton-Paterson's novel are his descriptions of shipboard life on a --ing trans-Atlantic liner. He takes Elgar from the first-class lounge to the bridge to the captain's table, but never, never to steerage.

Hamilton-Paterson is wonderfully evocative of the tropics, the endless jungle, the high skies filled with great billowing clouds and jagged lightning storms that never touch the earth.

He has found a congenial subject in Elgar's cruise to the tropics: He himself lives much of the time in a spare bamboo hut without electricity on a remote Philippine island.

And he is an extremely omniscient author telling his story as Joseph Conrad told his tale of darkness aboard a cruising sloop anchored in the Thames at sunset.

"Gerontius" is available at the Enoch Pratt Library.

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