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The Life of Elgar
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  • 30 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 240 pages
  • Size: 216 x 138 mm
  • Weight: 0.33 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521009072 | ISBN-10: 0521009073)


Neither Edward Ⅶ nor Edward Elgar was really an Edwardian. They were Victorians. Elgar was forty-three when Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the king over sixty. The Edwardian age, we are sometimes told, was leisurely and opulent, with society at its most glittering. It was an age that seems permanently lit by golden sunshine, with glorious days at Ascot and Goodwood, with England’s cricket team adorned by players such as Fry, MacLaren and Ranjitsinhji, an age of Royal Academy exhibitions and banquets, of the Entente Cordiale, of the country-house weekend. And no doubt it was for the privileged. But, like every age, it was a complex mixture. There was great wealth and dire poverty. If the king was called ‘the Peacemaker’, there was plenty of war being prepared. There was industrial strife on a scale that makes today’s disruption seem small beer. There was intense political controversy and social change. There was unemployment and strife in Ireland. There were entrepreneurs on a major scale, such as the king’s financial friends, and there were small shopkeepers and commercial quacks like H. G. Wells’s characters. You will find one part of Edwardian England in Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale and The Grand Babylon Hotel, another part in Wells’s Kipps and Tono Bungay and Ann Veronica (for the Edwardian age was also the age of the New Woman and of the suffragette), and yet another part in Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman and The Doctor’s Dilemma. There was glory in the Edwardian age, in literature, painting, music and on the cricket field; there was shoddiness too, in every walk and branch of life.

   Undoubtedly, though, life was more leisurely then, the countryside less spoilt, birds and butterflies more numerous, gardens more scented, most human beings less sophisticated and cynical. There was style in that era and most of all a degree of innocence and charm which was to be blasted away for ever by the First World War. Style and the lament for innocence are the qualities we find in Elgar. If he was in a very real sense the musical laureate of his time, it was not just in occasional works. He wrote the Coronation Ode for King Edward and nine years later he dedicated the Second Symphony to his memory. But the Coronation Ode was an occasional piece, deliberately designed as such, and a masterpiece as it happens; the symphony was a chapter of autobiography very little related to kingship or the sunset of empire.

   The Elgar of the Edwardian era also wrote the Five Part-Songs from the Greek Anthology, a title that must have deterred many from exploring the beauties of the music it conceals. The songs epitomise the charm and lyricism of Elgar, his Tennysonian element. The frequently made and obvious comparison with Kipling is not really very apt (although Kipling is as complex as Elgar and still as misunderstood as Elgar was until a few years ago), but Tennyson is the Elgar of poetry, with the gift of imparting intense lyricism to anything he undertook. The parallels between Tennyson and Elgar are striking, both artistically and in relation to their personalities. Both were streaked by a dark strain of utter melancholy, both were supreme lyricists capable of exquisite small gems and especially of pastoral evocation. Both expressed their love of their country through love of its countryside. Few poets have written more beautifully of nature than Tennyson; no composer distils the essence of English woodland and river into music as Elgar did. Both reached a wide popular audience because they put their art at the service of popular themes and events and both suffered a critical reaction for that very reason. When I was young, Elgar and Tennyson were spoken of by intellectuals in disparaging terms. It was considered almost indecent to admire them. You would have thought that neither had written anything besides ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Land of hope and glory’.

   In 1904, his personal annus mirabilis, Elgar might have seemed the musical representative of the age of empire and opulence. In March that year he received the almost unprecedented tribute of a three-day festival of his music at Covent Garden, with a member of the royal family present at each concert. Three months later, he was knighted at the age of forty-seven. Only seven years earlier he had been almost unknown in London, a struggling provincial musician who was still giving violin lessons to unwilling schoolgirls and serving behind the counter in his father’s music shop. If this was the age of opportunity, then Elgar had made full use of it – when the opportunity arose. It was to be another twenty years before he became Master of the King’s Music, but Elgar occupied that position in the public’s mind from the 1904 festival, or perhaps even earlier, from the 1897 jubilee.

   There remained the hurdle of a symphony. He found his way to it by a means which was certainly an Edwardian, or again more accurately a Victorian, preoccupation: the idealisation of childhood. In 1907, the year of his fiftieth birthday, he looked out some music he had written for a family play when he was twelve years old. He reorchestrated and perhaps recomposed it as The Wand of Youth, in two suites. If we seek a pertinent literary parallel, it is that while Elgar was working on The Wand of Youth, Kenneth Grahame was completing The Wind in the Willows. Elgar knew all about life and inspiration on the river bank and by entering that lost world of innocence and charm and sentiment, just as Grahame had, Elgar had unlocked the door that led to a symphonic masterpiece. And he did it with music that was often happy and boisterous but just as often withdrawn and lonely. Elgar himself supplied the perfect description when, by use of a pun (another Edwardian characteristic) in a letter to Arthur Troyte Griffith in 1914, he wrote of ‘boyhood’s daze’. ‘Fairy Pipers’ charmed to sleep the characters in the Elgar children’s play, so we must accept that at the age of twelve Elgar imagined going to sleep in the exact musical terms he was later to use for Gerontius.

   It was no great distance from The Wand of Youth to the second movement of the First Symphony, completed in 1908, music he asked orchestras to play ‘like something we hear down by the river’.1 Here I shall mention another Victorian-Edwardian whose most celebrated work appeared in 1904, another boy from a poor family who became one of the great literary figures of his day and, like Elgar, was always seeking the ‘wand of youth’, the land of lost content, ‘the happy highways where I went and cannot come again’. He was James Barrie, author of Dear Brutus and, of course, of Peter Pan. If there is an Edwardian characteristic which united some of the outstanding English writers, poets and musicians of that era, it was not a dream of empire or jingoism, but this desire to escape into an idealised childhood as if the real world was too painful. I do not want to exaggerate a comparison with Barrie, but it is there and it emerged strongly in 1915 when in the midst of war Elgar poured heart and soul into music for a sub-Barrie play, The Starlight Express, adapted from a story by Algernon Blackwood. When Barrie is acted well and sincerely, his mawkishness vanishes and what may embarrass us in a lesser performance becomes magical and occasionally sinister. So it is with Elgar in his children’s play and it is significant that in the score for The Starlight Express he draws heavily on The Wand of Youth.

   The climax of Elgar’s Edwardian period is the trilogy of works composed between 1909 and 1912 in which, to quote his own words, ‘I have written out my soul . . . I have shewn myself ’.2 These are the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony and The Music Makers. They have nothing to do with the Edwardian age in its social and historical aspects; they are the music of a private man, deeply divided against himself, his religious beliefs in tatters, his emotions torn between loyalty and devotion to his wife and another kind of love of a highly complex and noble kind for Alice Stuart Wortley; his personality at once the prey of insecurity and depression and the onrush of sudden high spirits, a man who had a deep grudge against providence for its failure to recognise him at the first glance and an equally deep scorn for the ingrained philistinism of the country which had loaded him with more honours than any other musician. Is it any wonder that the central climax of his Second Symphony, when the violent hammering of percussion blots out the rest of the music, took its cue from Tennyson?

      And the wheels go over my head,
      And my bones are shaken with pain
      . . .
      The hoofs of the horses beat,
      Beat into my scalp and brain.

There is another celebrated passage in this symphony, the coda of the finale. Those elegiac and consolatory pages have been seen in retrospect, by those wise after the event, as an epitaph for an age that was to end on 4 August 1914. But this music enshrines more than a temporal event. Is it the benediction of the Spirit of Delight or its withdrawal? It has never been more evocatively described than by Peter J. Pirie, in an essay of 1957:

It is a farewell to a vision that has been glimpsed but never held, to an illusion, stubbornly maintained in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the dignity of nineteenth-century society was real, its values true, its structure stable. The vision was seen by a boy in a candlelit bedroom of a country cottage . . . it was the blackcurrant tea that he mourned, and the life of a schoolboy on Malvern slopes.3

The Music Makers is a requiem for Elgar’s creative psyche. It was the apotheosis of the ideals of the boy who had tried to write down what the reeds were saying and who had believed that he could thereby sway the hearts and minds of mankind. But the adult Elgar found that music did not move and shake the world. He cursed the gifts that providence had given him.

1 ‘Boyhood’s daze’

In 1841 a twenty-year-old piano tuner, piano teacher and organist named William Henry Elgar moved from London to Worcester. Born in Dover, he had worked in London for the music publisher Coventry & Hollier, but it was the piano firm of Broadwood who had recommended him when a stationer called Stratfords, with a shop in The Cross, Worcester, wanted to develop its musical side and sought a tuner. He was handsome and charming. His son Edward was to say in later years: ‘My father used to ride a thoroughbred mare when he went to tune a piano. He never did a stroke of work in his life.’1 The rides took him to the country houses of Worcestershire, among them Witley Court, the seat of the Earl of Dudley and once the home for three years of William Ⅳ’s widow, Queen Adelaide. Lord Dudley heard William playing the piano after tuning it and was so impressed that he offered to pay for him to have further lessons, but the offer was refused. William was, in any case, a violinist and joined various amateur ensembles in Worcester such as the Glee Club, which met weekly in the Crown Hotel. He became friends with John Leicester, a printer in the High Street, and William Allen, a solicitor. Leicester was a Roman Catholic and a member of the choir at St George’s church. It was he who in 1846 put forward William Elgar’s name when the organist left (even though William was Anglican). The duties, besides playing the organ, involved training the choir, choosing the music and occasionally composing. On many

1 Elgar’s birthplace at Broadheath in about 1920

Sundays, instrumentalists were called in for Masses by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others.

   William lodged at a café in Mealecheapen Street kept by a man whose wife had been a Miss Greening. Soon he was taken into their family home in the village of Claines where he met Ann Greening, a Herefordshire farm labourer’s daughter, with an avid appetite for reading, especially tales of chivalry. William and Ann were married in 1848. She accompanied her husband to church every Sunday and eventually took instruction from the priest and converted to Roman Catholicism. William would have no truck with it and wrote to his family in Dover excoriating ‘the absurd superstition and playhouse mummery of the Papist; the cold and formal ceremonies of the Church of England; the bigotry and rank hypocrisy of the Wesleyan’.2 Later he was known to have threatened ‘to shoot his daughters if caught going to confession’.3

   Children soon arrived: Henry John (Harry) on 15 October 1848, Lucy Ann on 29 May 1852 and Susannah Mary (Pollie) on 28 December 1854. They were born at 2 College Precincts, opposite the east end of the cathedral. Ann Elgar yearned for a country life and in 1856 they rented The Firs, the tiny cottage of Newbury House in the village of Broadheath, three miles north-west of Worcester. It had six rooms on two floors. There, on 2 June 1857, Edward William Elgar was born, a day, according to his sister Lucy, when ‘the air was sweet with the perfume of flowers, bees were humming, and all the earth was lovely’.4 Edward was baptised at St George’s on 11 June, his sponsors being William and Charlotte Leicester.

   William Elgar remained in Worcester on weekdays so the family revolved round Ann. She imbued her children with a love of nature and continually read stories and recited poetry to them. A favourite poem was ‘The Better Land’, by Mrs Felicia Dorothea Hermans:

      Mother! Oh, where is that radiant shore?
      Shall we not seek it and weep no more?
       . . .
      Dreams cannot picture a world so fair –
      Sorrow and death cannot enter there:
      Time doth not breathe on its fadeless bloom,
      For beyond the clouds, and beyond the tomb,
      – It is there, it is there, my child!

Ann Elgar was not musical, but enjoyed those weekend evenings when her husband brought John Leicester and William Allen for an evening of singing round the piano. Allen always sang the baritone aria ‘Di Provenza il mar’ from Verdi’s La traviata (which had only been premièred in 1853). But Edward was still a baby and knew nothing of this.

   In the spring of 1859, with a fifth child due, the family moved back into Worcester. John Leicester had offered William a shop where people could try pianos before buying them and it was essential for William to live there. Edward was less than two years old when the family moved into 1 Edgar Street (now 1 Severn Street) where Frederick Joseph (Jo) was born on 28 August 1859. The business prospered and William sent for his much younger brother Henry to join him (in fact, rejoin, because Henry had worked as his teenage apprentice in Worcester for several years until they quarrelled). In 1860 they took over a vacant shop at 10 High Street (now demolished) as ‘Elgar Bros.’, though Henry was an employee rather than a partner. In the following year, the Elgars and Henry moved back into 2 College Precincts. There Edward ‘played about among the tombs & in the cloisters when I cd. scarcely walk’.5 A sixth child, Francis Thomas (Frank), was born in College Precincts on 1 October 1861. The family moved into rooms above the shop at 10 High Street in 1863, where a seventh child, Helen Agnes (Dott or Dot), was born on 1 January 1864.

   Lucy and Pollie attended the dame school at 11 Britannia Square, home of a Catholic convert, Miss Caroline Walsh, and were joined there in September 1863 by Edward. Life was no longer a Broadheath idyll. There were worries about money because William took life so easily. While Henry concentrated on the business of the shop, William

always found it impossible to settle down to work on hand but could cheerfully spend hours over some perfectly unnecessary and entirely unremunerative undertaking (a trait that was very noticeable in E[dward] especially in later life) . . . But anything that promised an hour’s or a day’s distraction always took him away.6

Edward grew deeply attached to his mother, who communicated her love of literature to him, but it was his father who noticed the boy’s aptitude for music when he began to extemporise on a piano in the shop, and who arranged for him to have lessons from Sarah Ricketts, a singer at St George’s, and later from Pollie Tyler at Miss Walsh’s school. Soon William took his son on his piano tuning rounds, in a pony and trap, and allowed him to improvise on the instrument after he had finished with it. Elgar’s friend the violinist W. H. Reed wrote many years later:

No detail or happening of those far-off times escaped him; he could tell me as we ambled about the lanes and passed these great houses, and many others too, the names of all the people who lived in them long ago, and relate to me the sayings of the members of the household, or the yarns spun for his benefit by the groom, or the old ostler who watered his father’s horse.7

The boy achieved some local fame as an extemporiser and used to be taken to a house in College Green to play to two old ladies and their guests. Elgar recalled: ‘The old people talked gravely about the music, and my favourite old gentleman (who wore many seals & such a stiff collar) said “Kozeluch was more fiery than Corelli” & that Schobert was “artificial in his Allegros”. Dear Heart! how learned it seemed.’8

   On 5 May 1864 the eldest child, Harry, aged fifteen, who ‘loved botany and the study of herbs and was always making concoctions of plants’,9 died from a kidney disease after an illness lasting four weeks. Edward thus became the eldest son, especially protective of the next boy, Jo, who was regarded as ‘the “Beethoven” of the family’, according to his sister Lucy, ‘having very remarkable aptitude for music in every way from the time he could sit up in his chair’.10 Jo, ‘though very intelligent, was curiously undeveloped in many ways and never learnt to pronounce his words properly’.11 His health declined throughout the summer of 1866 and he died from tuberculosis on 7 September just after his seventh birthday. As it happened, this was also the month of a seminal experience for Edward. The lay clerks of the cathedral were regular customers at Elgar Bros. and Edward, from when he was a small boy, had gone into the cathedral to hear music rehearsed and performed and had borrowed scores from the cathedral library. The organist was William Done, who also conducted the Three Choirs Festival when it was Worcester’s turn. It is a little difficult to comprehend Elgar’s insistence when he was older that being a Roman Catholic had barred doors to him. It certainly did not bar the doors of the Anglican cathedral. The 1866 festival was Worcester’s: William played in the orchestral second violins, Henry in the violas. To distract Edward from Jo’s death, the boy was allowed to attend the rehearsal of Beethoven’s Mass in C on 10 September. He was overwhelmed, not by the choral singing but by the sound of a full orchestra. He said to his friend Hubert Leicester: ‘If I had that orchestra under my own control & given a free hand I could make it play whatever I liked.’12 Already he had ambitions. As he wrote to a friend in 1921:

I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds & longing for something very great – source, texture & all else unknown. I am still looking for this – in strange company sometimes – but as a child & as a young man & as a mature man no single person was ever kind to me.13

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