by David Powys Hughes
Edward Elgar was forty-seven when he received his knighthood from the King at Buckingham Palace. Four days earlier he and his family had moved from Craeg Lea in Malvern to a new house in Hereford. The surrounding scenery was perhaps less inspiring, but the house itself, Plas Gwyn, offered more space (appropriate, Alice probably felt, in terms of her husband's new knightly status) and a large study which could easily accommodate Edward's piano and bookshelves. It was here that some of his greatest works would be composed.
Plas Gwyn also served as a base for one of his many hobbies: chemistry. In the back garden he converted a shed into a well-equipped laboratory (or glorified boy's chemistry set) which he dubbed The Ark. There he devised a machine for producing 'sulphuretted hydrogen' (hydrogen sulphide gas) and even patented it. On occasion his enthusiastic tampering led to dangerous results; for example, when he stowed an excessive amount of highly flammable phosphoric mixture in a water butt for 'safekeeping'. His friend, W. H. Reed—leader of the London Symphony Orchestra—reported the consequences: A sudden unexpected crash … shook the room … The water butt had blown up … and the liberated water went down the drive in a solid wall … Silence reigned for a few seconds. Then all the dogs in Herefordshire gave tongue … After a moment's thought, Edward lit his pipe and strolled down to the gate, andante tranquillo … A neighbour … called out, 'Did you hear that noise, sir: it sounded like an explosion?' 'Yes', said Sir Edward. 'I heard it; where was it?'
Another (marginally less risky) free-time pursuit of Edward's was cycling. He and Alice had purchased bicycles three years earlier while he was composing Gerontius, but Alice hadn't taken to it to quite the same extent. For Edward's part he loved the freedom 'Mr Phoebus' (the name he gave his Royal Sunbeam cycle) afforded him to range widely across the Malvern countryside. Unfortunately the move to Hereford brought the family closer to busier roads where the burgeoning motor car not only introduced increasing levels of sound pollution to disturb Edward's composition but also began to inhibit his cycling activities.
Meanwhile a wealthy Midlands benefactor was preparing another honour for Elgar. He would bestow the recently inaugurated University of Birmingham with a Chair of Music carrying an annual salary of £400; but only, the patron stipulated, if the post were offered to Elgar, and Elgar accepted it. Aside from the obvious advantage of a ready income, this rather put Elgar on the spot. If he refused the post, he would also deprive the university of a new professorship; but, with no academic background, he felt desperately inadequate to the task, not to mention the prospect of more teaching which he likened to turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder. In the end a compromise was struck. He accepted on the understanding that he would be expected to give no more than six lectures in the first year, that the post would involve no actual tutorial work and that he could resign after three years if he found the post unsatisfactory. Even with these caveats, Elgar was appointed and then faced the terror of preparing himself for public speaking.
Ultimately Sir Edward's lectures achieved one of his prime intentions which was to send a few seismic shocks to the foundations of the academic music establishment. He berated the state of English music and had little good to say about practically anybody. To some extent this was the self-educated shopkeeper's son 'chip on the shoulder' syndrome again, and I find it surprising how few permanent enemies he made as a result of these tirades: a measure perhaps of the high regard in which he was already held by most of the nation's professional musicians and composers.
Perhaps the lectures best succeeded when Elgar talked about music he loved. In a lecture on the 3rd Symphony of Brahms, he described it as a piece of absolute music; and he caused a stir by stating, I hold that the symphony without a programme [i.e. lacking any descriptive or narrative component] is the highest development of art … and, in a later lecture, that he looked upon music which exists without any poetic or literary basis as the true foundation of our art. Many found these claims bewildering. Had not every significant work of Elgar's (with the exception of the Introduction and Allegro) either born some extra-musical reference or been set to words? The composer admitted this to be the case, but added, When I see one of my own works by the side of, say, the Fifth Symphony [of Beethoven] I feel like a tinker may do when surveying the Forth Bridge.
Elgar was presently working on another important oratorio: The Kingdom. But, with the exception of The Music Makers five years later, this would be his last full-scale work based on a 'literary' programme. Even before it was finished, he was jotting down ideas for a symphony. The time for 'absolute music' had arrived.
Brahms delayed his first symphony until the age of forty-three fearing he would be unable to match up to Beethoven's mighty symphonic achievements. Elgar also long dreamed of composing a symphony but was to wait even longer, completing his first (in Ab major) at the age of fifty-one.
The noble tread of the symphony's unforgettable opening motto theme is after a few minutes swept away by a restless and at times aggressive Allegro. It is all too easy to apprehend Elgar as the writer of pompous, overconfident imperial marches. But restlessness and almost manic uncertainty and longing is much more the typical character of his greatest music.
A rip-roaring second movement gives way seamlessly to one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written: at times serene, at others brooding or impassioned, but ending in a state of transcendental stillness scarcely heard beyond the extraordinary last compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Finale reintroduces tension and energetic struggle but with passages of noble beauty and it closes with an ambiguous victory (is it or isn't it?) of the symphony's opening motto theme.
Whilst preparing the London Symphony Orchestra for the work's London premiere, Hans Richter (the symphony's dedicatee) said: Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times written by the greatest modern composer, and not only in this country.
August Jaeger, although dying of tuberculosis, was determined to attend the performance. He afterwards wrote to Dora Penny: I never heard such frantic applause . . . people stood up and even on their seats to get a view [of the composer].
During the following year (1909) the symphony received a stunning eighty-two performances worldwide: completely unprecedented for a work by any English composer. And, in achieving international renown, Sir Edward had also become a national icon.
NEXT ESSAY: ABLAZE WITH WORK
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