Elgar – A character Study
The Man Behind The Music
The picture often painted of Elgar is of the social outsider, a devout Catholic, snubbed by the English musical establishment but eventually, through the force of his music, reaching the pinnacle of British society and close friendship with royalty. As with all caricatures, there is some truth in this, but it is far from the whole picture.
His provincial base and activities did not help bring early recognition of his talents in London music circles, as he himself surely recognised: in 1889 he made an abortive first attempt to establish himself in London. But equally Elgar was a gradual developer, not a child prodigy. When recognition arrived, Parry and Stanford, at that time both composers of some esteem, were quick to speak out in support of him. And if their support seemed at times ambivalent, it should be remembered that Elgar, conscious of his lack of social standing, was acutely sensitive to any perceived hint of criticism. He took remarks out of context or in ways not intended and, through his extreme reaction, provoked quarrels and splits with those who could otherwise have helped promote his name.On formal occasions, he was often ill at ease, causing him to utter tactless comments that made him appear curt, rude and ill-tempered.
Among his social equals, however, particularly the ‘friends pictured within’ the Enigma Variations, he was a different person: an amusing conversationalist, high spirited, fond of ‘japes’ (his word) and of women’s company. And one part of the caricature that is absolutely accurate was his love of the countryside and, in particular, the Malvern Hills. Even the relative quiet of the town of Malvern he found distracting, so he rented country cottages – Birchwood, north of Malvern, and Brinkwells near Fittleworth in Sussex – in which to compose.
For someone with little formal education, Elgar was notably well read. He produced his own libretti from Biblical texts for his oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, a number of his scores contain apposite literary quotations and, in later life, he took to writing learned letters and analyses to the Times Literary Supplement. He was particularly fond of wordplays, the best known of which occurs in the Enigma variations. Each variation pictures a friend and, to help us identify them, Elgar gave each variation a short title relating to his subject. For most, he chose simply the subject’s initials, making this the more easily solved enigma attached to the variations. But the ninth and most widely loved variation he named Nimrod. The variation pictures his friend and mentor A J Jaeger whose name is German for ‘hunter’, while Nimrod is of course the legendary Biblical hunter.Other examples of Elgar’s liking for wordplays abound.
Elgar named his daughter Carice, a contraction of his wife’s forenames Car(oline Al)ice, while a house in Malvern he named Craeg Lea, an anagram of C(arice), A(lice) andE(dward) Elgar. I am indebted to Paul Rooke, the Elgar Society’s Publicity Secretary, for pointing out another possibility. At the top of one page of the manuscript of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar wrote the word DAN. The initials of this work spell DoG, while DAN is the name of the Hereford Cathedral organist George Sinclair’s bulldog, featured swimming in the River Wye in the eleventh Enigma variation. It would have been typical of Elgar, tiring of writing DoG at the top of each page of the manuscript, to substitute DAN as his own private pun.
Elgar’s interests extended to sport and to science. During the 1890s, he watched Wolverhampton Wanderers with Dora Penny (Dorabella of the tenth variation) whose father was rector of Wolverhampton at the time, while in later years his fancy turned more toward horse racing. The story is told of the young composer William Walton who, finding himself unexpectedly alone in Elgar’s presence, was overawed by the occasion and lost for words. Elgar broke the silence by asking Walton if he knew who had won the afternoon’s big race. And other, possibly equally apocryphal, stories are told of Elgar curtailing important engagements so as to be off to the races.
His interest in science is better documented. He constructed primitive chemistry laboratories at home in which to amuse himself, while the manuscript score of Falstaff contains an annotation in Elgar’s handwriting indicating the point at which, while in the midst of composing, he had taken apart, cleaned and reassembled his watch.It was perhaps this fascination with new technology that led, following Alice’s death, to a long and productive relationship with the His Masters Voice record company (now part of Thorn EMI) that has left us with a legacy of many impressive recordings of his works with Elgar himself conducting. If he were alive today, he would surely by now be on the net.
It is his attitude to Roman Catholicism and to religion in general that is perhaps the hardest to unravel. Elgar’s mother, Ann, converted to Catholicism some years before Edward was born. Edward was brought up in the Catholic faith and played the organ at St Georges Roman Catholic Church in Worcester (although so did his father William, a Protestant until he too converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in 1906). It is therefore perhaps inevitable that, when he produced The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of a poem by a Roman Catholic Cardinal which explores various tenets of the Catholic faith, people should jump to the conclusion that his Catholicism underlay his whole life. But his faith was never that strong.Ironically, it was the early failure of The Dream of Gerontius itself that led him to make the oft-quoted remark “I always knew God was against art…”, continuing “I have allowed my heart to open once – it is now shut against every religious feeling…”, this shortly before beginning work on The Apostles and The Kingdom, two oratorios viewed from an admittedly more neutral religious perspective. Even in his youth in Worcester, however, he attended services in the (Anglican) Worcester Cathedral as regularly as those at his own church, although he may have been motivated to do so more by the music and architecture of the cathedral than by any religious persuasion.
As he grew older, his belief gradually withered. Although on his deathbed he is reported to have reaffirmed his commitment to the Roman Catholic faith and, while unconscious, received the last rites, he had not attended a church service for many a year. He claimed to have no belief in a life after death and to have taken exception to the dogma of the Catholic liturgy. The ambivalence of his faith makes it somehow fitting that, while he and Alice are buried in St Wulstan’s Catholic Church at Little Malvern, his memorial window is in Worcester Cathedral.