The Early Years
Edward William Elgar was born in the village of Lower Broadheath, just a handful of miles from Worcester, on the 2nd of June 1857. His mother Ann Elgar(nee Greening) was the daughter of a Hereford farmer, and his father, William Henry Elgar, a Dover man who, after serving an apprenticeship in London, had, in 1841, moved to Worcester to open his own music shop and piano tuning business.
William found lodgings in in The Shades Tavern in Worcester, which operated more as a restaurant than a pub, and was run by a man who was married to Ann Greening’s sister. Ann often helped out at the tavern.
By the mid-1840s William had become an important part of the musical life of Worcester, becoming, in 1846, organist at St George’s Roman Catholic church. Around the same time he left the tavern and moved into the Greening home in the village of Claines, just north of Worcester.
Like his son later, William fell head-over-heels, as did Ann. Everyone said it was meant to be.
Ann and William married in 1848 and moved to what was then called College Yard in Worcester, close to the cathedral, where Elgar’s siblings were born “ under the shadow of our dear dear cathedral.”
In 1856, Ann persuaded William to move out of the city to a rented cottage, The Firs, in Lower Broadheath, that was to become Elgar’s birthplace. His beloved Malvern Hills can be seen from the bedroom in which he was born.
Edward’s mother was a voracious reader who ensured her children (Edward had two sisters and a brother) quickly became versed in poetry and classical literature. Elgar, like his mother, also became a voracious reader, which included the works of Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), so much so that plans were made in the early 1900s for Elgar to turn one of Hardy’s early novels into an opera. Sadly, it never materialised.
Edward Elgar’s education was, to say the least, mixed, and, with one exception, below standard, even for that period. The exception was the Catholic School at the estate hamlet of Spetchley, to the east of Worcester. Elgar entered the tiny school at the age of twelve in 1869.
And the more he thought about Spetchley school in his later life, and the education he’d received there, and how he would absent-mindedly stare out of the classroom window and watch the massive Lebanon pines that lined the large estate gardens, mesmerised by their movement, and their wind driven songs, and their constant base notes, and how all of that had become the heart of his music. And he would smile as he remembered the teacher calling out to him.
“ Sorry to disturb you young man. Your name if you please?”
“ Edward Elgar.”
“ Say sir.”
“ Sir Edward Elgar.”
Elgar never tired of telling that story.
And those deep base notes can clearly be heard in The Dream of Gerontius (1901), and The Apostles (1903), and The Kingdom (1906), which are three works of unsurpassed musical brilliance drawn from Elgar’s heart and soul that, with the sublime prose and poetry of the Bible, tells of those who, with trepidation and fear, and an often wavering faith, followed Jesus Christ.
Within these three huge works we find Elgar’s mature musical signature in every phrase, yet tempered with his own, often wavering faith, not only in God but in himself and his ability to create music of worth. Puccini, a contemporary of Elgar’s, suffered the same fears, but he left religion well alone, whereas Elgar chose not to, having fallen in love with the story of the Apostles, especially when his schoolmaster, Francis Reeve, explained to Elgar’s class that:
“ The Apostles were young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.”
That was the spark that Elgar turned into a roaring bonfire of belief and discontent.
As Michael Foster has written in his book Plotting Gigantic Worx:
“ Edward Elgar was brought up a Roman Catholic but in a far from ordinary Catholic family. His father was a freethinker without any structure of faith at all who became organist at the local Catholic church more on financial grounds than any other. His mother, though, was a cottage intellectual, a book collector and a great reader…She became a convert, raising her children in the same way, against her husband’s opposition.”
The Elgar house was therefore a house divided by religion, and Elgar’s original contentment, as a boy, with the traditions and certainties of the medieval and mystical church his mother had taught him, were daily set against his father’s non-religious freethinking, a situation that may easily have led to the mature Elgar’s deep seated religious uncertainty and unhappiness and, as many have said, his genius.
To quote Michael Foster again:
“ Is it not therefore entirely possible that the appeal of the Apostles led him into a sort of divine challenge?”
I remember, on a lovely summer Saturday, going to see performances of The Kingdom and The Apostles at Worcester Cathedral in the 1980s, The Kingdom in the afternoon, and The Apostles in the evening. It was an extraordinary, exhausting, and memorable occasion that I shall never forget. Between the performances, and as a member of the Elgar Society back then, I was invited to tea, in the Dean’s garden I think, but I have to admit, when I saw the crowds of people gathered there, mainly ladies in large hats, I lost my nerve and headed for the nearest pub. I think if Elgar had been in that garden that afternoon he might have come with me.
Around the same time I managed to get a ticket to see a performance of The Dream of Gerontius at Warwick University. Now that was a completely different set-up. I can’t remember the orchestra and chorus, or the principle singers, but I found myself sitting next to a member of the chorus, with the orchestra and principle singers spread out below us. It was one of the best performances of that piece I’ve ever heard, and every time the gentleman chorus member next to me stood up to sing I felt like joining him. A remarkable evening.
Probably one of the great regrets with regard The Dream of Gerontius is that my wife’s aunt, Kathleen Ferrier, only seems to have managed to record, in 1944, a test pressing of her singing the part of the Angel. I feel that if she had managed to record the oratorio with a full orchestra and chorus, it would have been definitive. But there we are.
Edward Elgar: A Creative Life — Jerrold Northrop Moore (Oxford 1984); Elgar As I Knew Him — W.H. Reed (Victor Gollance Ltd 1978); An Elgar Companion — Edited by Christopher Redwood (Sequoia Publishing & Moorland Publishing 1982); Elgar Lived Here — Pauline Collett (Thames Publishing 1981); Elgar: An Illustrated Life — Simon Mundy (Omnibus Press 1984); Plotting Gigantic Worx: The Story of Elgar’s Apostles Trilogy- Michael Foster (The Worcestershire Press 1995, 2003); The Cambridge Companion to Elgar — Edited by Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton (Cambridge University Press 2004); Elgar in Love — Kevin Allen (Published by the Author, 2000); The Elgar-Atkins Friendship — E. Wulston Atkins (David & Charles 1984)…