by David Powys Hughes
Overrated national icon or underrated musical genius? Pompous Victorian/Edwardian poseur or shy, insecure artist? Charming companion or insensitive boor? Each of us is free to choose our vision of the English composer Edward Elgar. I prefer to say that, at different times, Elgar could be any of the above contradictions and a compendium of many others besides. If we are to understand this complex man, we must begin at the beginning.
Edward William Elgar was born on 2 June 1857 in the upstairs bedroom of a small cottage in Broadheath, a village three miles to the northwest of Worcester. He was the fourth of seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood.
His father owned a Worcester High Street music shop which he ran with his younger brother; but he also tuned pianos, worked as organist and choir leader at St George's, the local Catholic church, and was a competent violinist who played in the orchestra at the Three Choirs Festival.
When Edward showed an aptitude for music, his father arranged for piano lessons. But this wasn't enough for the boy, who greedily absorbed music knowledge from everywhere around him. He attended rehearsals and concerts at Worcester Cathedral and borrowed music from the cathedral library. He searched out books about harmony and orchestration. In the Elgar Bros music shop, he practised and improvised on one of the pianos. And since Edward's family lived over the shop, he sometimes crept down after his parents were asleep to borrow scores and, with a candle, studied them in secret beneath his tented bedclothes.
Edward also persuaded his father to lend him a violin and quickly taught himself to play. In his teens, he was standing in for his father as organist at St George's, arranging and composing for the church choir, and playing violin at the local Glee Club and at the Three Choirs Festival. During the summer of his twentieth birthday, Edward was appointed leader and instructor of the Worcester Amateur Instrumental Society and, having taught himself the bassoon, formed a wind quintet from its members for which he composed numerous charming and playful pieces. Some of these would nostalgically resurface in The Severn Suite at the very end of his life.
Something I find extraordinary about Edward Elgar's early musical development is the extent to which he was self-taught. Apart from his boyhood piano instruction and a few violin lessons from Adolphe Pollitzer in London, Edward's skills seem to have been acquired by some magical process of osmosis. He learnt by listening, reading and doing. And this perhaps is one reason why Elgar the composer remained all his life beyond the pale of—indeed often in fiery opposition to—the English music establishment. It is also, we can suppose, an important contributing factor toward his striking originality.
Through his twenties Edward took every opportunity to broaden his scope. He visited London for concerts, and travelled to Leipzig where he heard performances of Schumann, Brahms and Wagner. He made a marginal income giving violin and piano lessons and, one day a week, acted as music director of the County Lunatic Asylum. His compositions were sometimes performed in Worcester and Birmingham.
Briefly, he was engaged to Helen Weaver, violinist sister of a longstanding musician friend. But she broke it off and emigrated to New Zealand. Edward's career seemed to be going nowhere special. Then he met Alice . . .
Caroline Alice Roberts—she preferred Alice to Caroline—was the daughter of a Major General. When she began piano accompaniment lessons with Edward in October 1886, she was an on-the-shelf 38-year-old. However, after a two- and a half-year courtship, she and Edward were married. Much to the chagrin of her family. Not only was Edward nine years Alice's junior, he was a Catholic. Almost worse, he was the son of a shopkeeper!
The match does seem a little incongruous, even to 21st-century eyes. Edward was young and dashing. Alice was dumpy, plain-faced, and approaching middle age. We know Edward had been and would remain throughout his life an admirer of feminine beauty. So what did he see in Alice? Her family were convinced he was a gold-digger. One aunt cut Alice out of her will.
My own suspicion is that, if there were an ulterior motive, Edward was attracted not to Alice's money but to her social status. Painfully aware of his humble origins, Edward resented any hint of condescension from those of higher social standing. Nevertheless he had always harboured great ambitions for himself. As a teenager, he once told his mother he would be satisfied only when someone could address a letter to him with Edward Elgar, England.
Whatever one might surmise about Edward's marital motives, we cannot doubt that he and Alice were devoted to each other for the whole of their lives together. That said, I still find myself immensely curious as to the true nature of their relationship. One family friend described Alice's behaviour towards her husband as that of the doting mother of a gifted son rather than a wife—often, sadly it would seem, to the neglect of their real child, Carice.
It is clear that Alice was as ambitious for Edward's success as he was himself. (Perhaps she also hoped to prove her family wrong about underestimating his worth.) I do not know if her unmarried status before forty was due to a lack of suitors or to her refusal to compromise in a husband. Alice was an intelligent and well-educated woman. She possessed musical skills and sensitivity, wrote poetry and had authored two published novels. I see her as strong-willed—we know how she defied her family over Edward—and as a domineering personality who had romantic notions of the role she should play in her marriage. She encouraged Edward when his spirits were low. More importantly, she disciplined his working life. Edward was never a workaholic. He had a tendency to fritter away his time in frivolous pursuits. Alice was his conscience. She had absolute faith in his musical and creative talents and expected him to live up to her idealistic vision. It is my belief that Edward's awareness of her strength of purpose and commitment was one of the most important reasons why he chose Alice as his life's companion: he knew she would bring out the best in him and would relentlessly press him to fulfil his own otherwise dreamy ambitions.
Their first two years of marriage were lived in London, which seemed the best place for furthering Edward's career. And their daughter Carice was born there. But Edward was forever commuting back to the Midlands to play and to teach violin lessons. In the end, they accepted defeat (for the time being) and returned to live in the Malvern Hills near Worcester.
Edward would always have a tendency to exaggerate his woes and overreact to perceived slights. He moaned repeatedly about how underestimated he was, and of how he despised having to return to the parochial society of Worcestershire. I find his complaints more than a little dishonest. He was much more a rural than a city man. He revelled in the countryside of the borderlands. He loved to walk and cycle—especially on the Malvern Hills. And what was this supposedly unsophisticated, parochial Worcestershire society of which he claimed to be so disdainful? Let us be clear that here he had a wide circle of cultured and musical friends, some from the higher levels of Victorian society that he so much aspired to. Furthermore they supported his artistic endeavours and offered him stimulating companionship. I cannot believe Edward would have been happier anywhere else—certainly not in noisy, overcrowded and smoggy London.
Despite his distance from the capital, Edward was gradually making a name for himself. His compositions were being published and performed—amongst them such eternal favourites as Salut d'amour and the Serenade for Strings. However the real turning point in his career would come in his forty-first year with the immensely popular Enigma Variations.
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