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ABLAZE WITH WORK

by David Powys Hughes

In 1902 a second Alice entered Edward Elgar's life. She was Alice Stuart Wortley, an accomplished pianist, third daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais, and second wife of the conservative MP for Sheffield. The Stuart Wortleys were frequent visitors to the Elgars' home and the two families met socially on innumerable occasions. Edward felt that two Alices in his life was getting confusing, so he dubbed the second one 'Windflower' (the common name for anemone nemorosa).

Edward and Windflower exchanged letters for the next thirty years. Windflower's were destroyed at her death. Only Edward's survive, though with some passages heavily over-scored or cut out with scissors, most probably edited (or was it censored?) by Windflower's daughter, Clare. Much of the remaining one-directional correspondence suggests strong romantic feelings on Edward's part. Whether these feelings were reciprocated is impossible to know; neither can we know if they were ever consummated, although the prevalent opinion amongst Elgar experts is 'not'. Be that as it may, we can have little doubt that Edward's affection for Alice Stuart Wortley was, from a musical point of view, inspirational.

It has been said that throughout his life Edward needed such feminine muses; and one is tempted to ask, was Lady Alice Elgar aware of Edward's feelings for her namesake? I believe it's perfectly possible. Lady Alice had always seemed at ease to see her husband surrounded by what many wives would have perceived as competitors. A family friend once commented that Edward's work and well-being were everything to Alice Elgar, and suggested that she actually encouraged these friendships with young and attractive women who could do the parts she couldn't always manage herself. Again the maternal nature of Alice Elgar's love seems uppermost.

Fritz Kreisler, one of the greatest violinists of his generation, had for some time been asking Elgar for a violin concerto. Kreisler proclaimed that Elgar was the greatest living composer. . . I place him, he said, on an equal footing with my idols, Beethoven and Brahms. . . His invention, his orchestration, his harmony, his grandeur, it is wonderful. High praise indeed, and it is not surprising that Elgar responded to Kreisler's request.  

Although two important themes for the Violin Concerto had been sketched some years earlier, Elgar began composing in earnest soon after New Year, 1910. Before long he was also, in parallel, composing a second symphony.

I am now ablaze with work & writing hard, he wrote to Windflower. You should come & see (& hear it!).

Even though Edward was himself a fairly skilled violinist, he asked professional advice for virtuoso use of the instrument from W. H. Reed, who, on arrival for the session, found E. striding about with a lot of loose sheets of music paper, arranging them in different parts of the room. Some were already pinned on the backs of chairs, or stuck up on the mantelpiece ready for me to play.

Edward labelled two of the concerto's motifs Windflower themes and he described the work as being full of romantic feeling. . . awfully emotional! too emotional but I love it.

The work was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, who gave its premiere performance in London. But below was a second dedication in Spanish: Aquí está encerrada el alma de . . . . . , which means Here is enshrined the soul of . . . . .

The mysterious five dots are reminiscent of the three asterisks heading the thirteenth Enigma variation. Do they stand for 'A L I C E' (Stuart Wortley)? Certainly in his correspondence to her he spoke of it as Our Concerto. And after a rehearsal of the work in London he wrote to her that, although the seats of the auditorium were empty, there was a spirit hovering in block A. . . which is where Windflower generally sat.

The Violin Concerto was an instant success: much performed in Britain and abroad, and on both sides of the Atlantic. It remains today a staple of the concerto repertoire.

One intriguing detail: Elgar's Violin Concerto carries the identical opus number to the Violin Concerto of Ludwig van Beethoven (opus 61). There were two other minor works that Elgar composed over the same period that were ultimately allotted numbers 60 and 62. On closer inspection, this order seems somewhat arbitrary. Could it be that Edward intentionally juggled the figures to create a Beethovenian allusion? That would certainly be typical of his sense of fun.

Hot on the heels of Edward's Violin Concerto came the Second Symphony. This is a more austere and abstract, less approachable work than the First Symphony, though one that ultimately I find more satisfying and that touches me on a deeper level. Its density and complexity of texture suggest a conscious leaning further toward the symphonic poems or opera scores of Elgar's champion, Richard Strauss. Despite its lyrical and deeply personal slow movement, the public responded to it (and perhaps still does) with much less enthusiasm than for the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto. On stage, receiving the premiere's cooler than expected applause, Elgar commented to the orchestra's leader, W. H. Reed: What's the matter with them, Billy? They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.

Over the next few years, Elgar was to produce a stream of part songs, smaller choral pieces, and several shorter orchestral works, amongst them the Coronation March for King George V and the fragile Sospiri (Italian for Sighs). There would also be two masterpieces: a cantata, The Music Makers, and the symphonic study, Falstaff. But Elgar's public zenith occurred with the Violin Concerto in 1910. Even though he would, till the very end of his life, continue to be wheeled out as an increasingly passé national icon and offered all due respect, his general popularity was already on the wane.

The zenith had likewise passed for the complacent social milieu of Edwardian England. On 4 August 1914 came Britain's declaration of war on Germany, and Armageddon was upon them all. . . .


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