HOPES AND GLORIES
by David Powys Hughes
With the advent of the 20th century, Edward's years of relative obscurity were coming to an end. On his return home from the Dream of Gerontius premiere, the composer discovered that Cambridge University had offered him an honorary doctorate of music. To Alice's horror, Edward's immediate reaction was to refuse it because he couldn't afford the degree ceremony robes. The crisis was averted when a family friend pointed out that such things could be hired.
But this was only the first of many honours that would be showered upon the composer over the coming years: further doctorates from Leeds, Durham, and even Yale; election to the Athenaeum; accolades from such internationally famous musicians as Richard Strauss; an Elgar festival at Covent Garden attended by the royal family; and ultimately a knighthood. The Worcestershire shopkeeper's son had come a long way, and Alice's faith in her husband's abilities had surely been vindicated.
So was Edward happy with this success? Not outwardly. He continued to make himself miserable about less than perfect performances and his underestimation, as he saw it, by colleagues and music critics. Also the chip on his shoulder about his lower-middle-class origins just wouldn't go away. Did he think people were still laughing behind his back?
The music critic, Ernest Newman, looking back years later on this turning point in Elgar's career, wrote that the composer gave the impression of an exceptionally nervous, self-divided and secretly unhappy man who felt bewildered at the half-realisation that his days of spiritual privacy . . . were probably coming to an end; while no doubt gratified by his rapidly growing fame, he was in his heart of hearts afraid of the future.
This is an opportune moment to expand on our description of Elgar in his mid-forties, as perceived by others who knew him personally:
From the time of the composition of Gerontius, Edward and Alice had been learning to ride bicycles. A family friend, Rosa Burley, who often accompanied Edward on cycling expeditions, remarked that, although his moods could be unpredictable, the surrounding nature invariably brought him pleasure; and that he was particularly touched by birdsong and . . . loved and knew all the little creatures that darted in and out of the hedges.
The promising seventeen-year-old composer Arnold Bax was taken to meet Elgar, and afterwards recalled: He was not a big man but such was the dominance of his personality that I always had the impression that he was twice as large as life . . . Hatless, dressed in rough tweeds and riding boots, his appearance was rather that of a retired army officer turned gentleman farmer than an eminent and almost morbidly highly strung artist.
In spite of his outward bearing, Edward had a playful, even socially anarchic side. He was fond of practical jokes and silly backchat. Young Dora Penny (the stammering Dorabella of the tenth Enigma Variation) was a regular visitor to the Elgar home, and she describes the host's customary antics at the dinner table: He kept up a running fire of absurd remarks, comments, chaff and repartee. I often laughed so much that I could hardly eat and was positively afraid to drink. Also it did not help matters to have the Lady [Alice] . . . putting in remarks to check the flow: 'Oh, Edward dear, how can you?' or 'Oh, Edward, really!' 'Cheer up, Chicky!' was all she got for her pains.
This conjures up an image of Edward the mischievous school boy and Alice the chiding but indulgent mother. Many would say overindulgent. She fussed around him, zealously tending to his every comfort and knitting him a profusion of scarves and winter socks. The slightest hint of an impending cold and Edward would be tucked up in bed with as many as seven hot water bottles. It's interesting that Edward accepted all of Alice's ministrations without demur or embarrassment. I can't help feeling that while she succeeded in exaggerating his self-centred and hypochondriac tendencies, she also enjoyed the sense of her own indispensability.
Alice was also a hard taskmaster. When Edward received a Christmas gift of the 35-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica in a revolving bookcase, she soon disposed of it. As daughter Carice told Dora Penny, Father would turn it round so! But we can imagine the real reason was the distraction it posed to Edward's composition.
And Edward was, in these post-Gerontius years, producing a stream of excellent music:
Two concert overtures, Cockaigne and In the South; the first a depiction of the English capital city with music that the composer described as cheerful and Londony—"stout and steaky"; the second inspired by the Elgars' stay in the Italian town of Alassio. Edward had hoped, on this trip, to compose a symphony for the Covent Garden Elgar festival. In the South was a much slighter but pleasing substitute.
Between these descriptive pieces were the lyrically energetic Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra (one haunting theme of which is said to have originated from the sound of distant singing on the Welsh island of Ynys Lochtyn) and another major choral work The Apostles whose depiction of Judas Iscariot's betrayal and ultimate despair is especially telling.
In the popular mind, however, there is one composition of this period that overshadows all others. Perhaps it was the nation's concern with the faltering Boer War that prompted Elgar to compose a pair of uplifting marches. To Jaeger he wrote Gosh! man I've got a tune in my head, one he later said that would knock 'em—knock 'em flat, a tune that comes once in a lifetime. This was the theme of the middle section (the trio) of the first Pomp and Circumstance march, and it so caught the imagination of the public that, at its London premiere, the piece was encored twice by a clamorous and exultant audience.
When Elgar later proposed that the trio tune be set to words, Jaeger was sceptical, feeling that its wide range and unpredictable intervals would be unsingable. He could hardly have been more wrong. With stirring patriotic lyrics that seem to express 'Britishness' even more than the national anthem God Save the Queen, Elgar's tune has become one of the most recognised melodies worldwide. The tune is, of course, Land of Hope and Glory.
NEXT ESSAY: ABSOLUTE MUSIC
All material on this website © Simon Boswell