FAREWELL TO ALICE
by David Powys Hughes
In company, Elgar could be charming, entertaining and humorous; but no honest portrait of the composer would be complete without at least one example of his unfortunate ability to be just the opposite.
After witnessing a less than perfect performance of Verdi's Requiem in Birmingham, Elgar marched into the artists' room backstage and declared loudly that it was the worst performance of the Requiem he had ever heard.
Who the hell is this major-general? the young tenor soloist demanded, and what does he mean by rushing in here and giving his opinion unasked?
The baritone soloist assured him that this was no military officer but the esteemed Sir Edward Elgar.
The Finnish soprano, Aino Ackté, who sadly had been insufficiently prepared and was by far the weakest link in the performance, came forward smiling and asking to be introduced to the great composer. Elgar snubbed her brutally and refused even to shake her hand, which reduced the poor woman to tears.
The tenor commented with good cause: Thank God his music is better than his manners!
Such unattractively self-important and insensitive behaviour&emdash;few could excuse it—is often symptomatic of a person trying to hide a chronic sense of inferiority and insecurity. As we have seen in earlier instances, Edward Elgar fit that pattern; and, interestingly enough, these sensibilities can also be detected in his music. However, the view, still sometimes held, of Elgar as a similarly pompous, indeed imperialist, composer is decidedly askew.
Let us not be overinfluenced by superficial characteristics such as his rather naive militaristic use of snare drum and cymbal, most notably in the Pomp and Circumstance Marches: works which undoubtedly reflect a level of patriotism widespread in Edwardian English society. (His under-awed friend and artistic advocate August 'Nimrod' Jaeger once referred to these pieces as "pompous and circumstantial".) Regardless of the Marches' (especially No. 1's) fame and popularity, they are best thought of as music for a specific purpose, akin perhaps to something like Sibelius's Finlandia. We can assume the patriotic feeling such music so readily stirs in the listener was, to some extent, felt by the composer himself. But these 'occasional' pieces should not be confused with the greatest music by Elgar (or Sibelius) where expression on a deeply personal level simultaneously succeeds in making a crucial statement about our broader human condition.
I would further suggest that we Brits not be too possessive about Edward Elgar's musical genius. The common wisdom in this country claims him to be the quintessential 'British' composer who expresses Britishness (or, at least, Englishness) like no other before or since. This could in many ways be an illusion. A number of eminent non-Brit musicians have stressed the mainstream European nature of Elgar's music: how it is closer to Brahms or Richard Strauss or Wagner than to any identifiable 'British' features—folk music or otherwise. Elgar's choice of extra-musical elements—titles of pieces, librettos and lyrics, etc—were sometimes, of course, British in a historical or literary sense. But the music itself is another matter. To my mind, Vaughan Williams' music presents us with more specifically or recognizably 'English' characteristics. Elgar's music is so personal and idiosyncratic that the only satisfying 'overall' description I can find for it is 'Elgarian'!
On New Year's Day 1912, the Elgars moved back (one might say in triumph) to London, nearly twenty-two years after they were forced to abandon the capital and return to the provinces in obscurity and defeat. Lady Alice was now happy and in her element, entertaining and circulating amongst a wide circle of eminent and high-ranking friends and acquaintances. Edward, however, found the noise and the fuss debilitating to his musical creativity. Telephones etc all day and night drive me mad! he once complained about the house in Hampstead. With selfless regret, Alice arranged for them to spend considerable periods of time at Brinkwells, a rented cottage situated in the West Sussex countryside where her husband could again concentrate on his composition.
At this point in his life, Edward turned to chamber music. His three masterpieces—the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet—were largely (and to some extent simultaneously) composed at Brinkwells.
Not far from the cottage was a rise upon which a group of dead trees, apparently struck by lightning, had very gnarled and twisted branches stretching out in an eerie manner: this was how one of the Elgars' visitors to Brinkwells, W. H. Reed, described the place. Another visitor was Algernon Blackwood, the celebrated writer of supernatural tales. (Elgar had earlier collaborated with Blackwood by providing the original music for a stage production of one of the writer's stories for children renamed, for the purpose, The Starlight Express.) Blackwood noted about this same eerie spot: Upon the plateau, it is said, was once a settlement of Spanish monks, who, while carrying out some impious rites, were struck dead; and the trees are their dead forms. Although Blackwood may have initiated the 'legend' of the Spanish monks himself, there can be little doubt that this atmospheric location provided the inspiration for the rather spooky opening of Elgar's Piano Quintet.
Some passages of the Quintet's outer movements show Elgar at his most Brahmsian, with striking similarities to the German composer's F Minor work; except, in Elgar's case, the ferocity is partially subdued by that listless sense of yearning and uncertainty that we so often find in his music.
Several months later, came one of Elgar's greatest and most widely played masterpieces: the Cello Concerto. Nowadays we take this work for granted as one of the pillars of our orchestral repertoire. So it is hard to realize the limited impact it made in its own time. The horrors of the Great War had forever swept away the demure, self-assured mentality of pre-war England, and the younger generation demanded a new art which reflected that change. At their shared first performance in London, the three chamber compositions were criticized for being out of step with the modern world, and Elgar's popularity—especially amongst the young musical élite—continued to sink.
The composer's rehearsals for the premiere of the Cello Concerto were wilfully cut short. The 37-year-old Albert Coates, who was to conduct every other work in the programme, hogged far too much of the available time. Like The Dream of Gerontius (and the Introduction and Allegro) before it, the new Concerto received an unnecessarily shabby first performance—this time with a conspicuously less than full auditorium. But posterity has won out. Few now question the genius and emotive intensity of this masterpiece of the cello repertoire. To quote one of Elgar's key biographers, Jerrold Northrop Moore, this was such a concerto of isolation, loneliness, farewell even, as had never yet been written.
Prescient in the Cello Concerto or not, a farewell—and a devastating one—was now at hand. Lady Alice Elgar had long been troubled with coughs and colds, and a week after the concerto's premiere she took to her bed. Although it was not realized at the time, Alice had lung cancer. She weakened steadily over the next months and, on the evening of 7 April 1920, died in her husband's arms.
Edward's will to compose seemed to wither away. He would complete no more masterpieces. Lady Alice had been his cornerstone and the persistent leverage applied to his creativity. Without the force of her (superficially unassuming) personality, much of the music that we cherish today would perhaps never have been written. Edward wrote to a friend: Bless her! You, who like some of my work, must thank her for all of it, not me. I shd. have destroyed it all & joined Job's wife in the congenial task of cursing God.
Over the following years, Edward did not abandon musical activities altogether, but we see his life as a widower drift more and more toward casual (though doubtless pleasant) pursuits which Alice, in her maternally admonishing way, might have frowned upon: playing billiards with minimal skill; studying unicellular organisms through his microscope; attending theatres, possibly also silent movies (a new phenomenon) and football matches (he was a Wolverhampton Wanderers supporter); driving himself around in his new car (chauffeur-driven after a minor accident); making an astonishing six-week cruise to South America with a thousand-mile trip up the Amazon.
Also there were visits to the racetrack. Elgar adored horses and decried their indiscriminate slaughter during the Great War. He was, in fact, fond of all animals, both wild and domesticated. Having dubbed Carice's pet rabbit 'Pietro d'Alba', he claimed the creature to be a close confidant, and sometimes even borrowed its Italian 'title' as a pseudonym. However Edward's lifelong love of dogs had throughout his married life been thwarted. Alice had flatly refused to allow one in any of their numerous houses. It is therefore no surprise that when Edward more or less abandoned London and set up home again in Worcestershire, he bought himself a spaniel and a cairn terrier. They became his inseparable companions, the three of them sharing regular walks together. All things considered, would it be heretical to suggest that, after the initial grief for his cherished wife Alice, Edward's very genuine loss was to some extent ameliorated by a sense of liberation?
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