Marl Bank: Elgar’s Final Home, Elgar spends a Summer Afternoon with Frederick Delius, Dream Children, The Wand of Youth Suites, The Nursery Suite, Starlight Express, W, H. Reed’s Memoir, Elgar As I knew Him, and Death…
From Stratford-upon-Avon Sir Edward Elgar, in the winter of 1929, moved back to Worcester, renting a house called Marl Bank, initially for the Worcester Festival, but he liked it so much he stayed on after the festival, buying the house just two days after his friend, Fred Gaisberg, the artistic director of HMV, died. It was to be Sir Edward’s last home.
Pauline Collett, in her 1981 book Elgar Lived Here, describes Marl Bank as:
“…a big, square, three-storey house with a large garden of nearly two acres set with impressive trees. The front of the house was built about 1865, with beautifully proportioned windows. Some of the windows on one side dated from the 18th century and the back was 17th century.”
As Collett goes on to describe , the oldest part of the building had been used as an HQ by Cromwell’s army staff during the Battle of Worcester. I guess it was the second Battle of Worcester in 1651, where Prince Charles (Later Charles II) took flight with his Scottish army destroyed?
With his move back to Worcester Elgar continued to write and play music again, and with some vigour, including the recording, by Elgar, of some improvised sessions at the piano the day before he was due to conduct some of his early pieces with a small orchestra. It was an unusual thing for Elgar to do as he didn’t really enjoy playing the piano. It was as if he was bringing himself back to musical life since the death of his wife Alice in 1920. It was a hugely emotional and revealing thing for Elgar to do. A recording was made available in 1975; sadly hard to find these days.
It was also agreed, in 1929, that HMV would commission a new recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with Fritz Kreisler as soloist. But it proved impossible for Elgar and Kreisler to get together, and in the end Fred Gaisberg reluctantly agreed to use the fifteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin. It was an inspired choice, championed by Elgar, creating one of the finest recordings, conducted by the composer, of the concerto ever made.
Menuhin and Elgar hit it off from the start, and a few days later, after an hour or so of rehearsals, knowing that Menuhin was perfect, Elgar headed for the races.
As Simon Mundy writes:
“ The new spur to composition came at a time when public appreciation of his [Elgar’s] music, stimulated in celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday [in 1927], was almost equal to the enthusiasm of before the war. The disinterest of the twenties had, for the time being, been largely dispelled.”
Once settled in ‘Marl Bank’ Elgar brought out old sketch books: finally completing the Pomp and Circumstances Marches, and writing a Soliloquy for the Oboe, which could have been a first idea for a concerto. A very beautiful piece.
In 1930, as Master of the King’s Music, Elgar, prompted by the birth of Princess Margaret, began the Nursery Suite, dedicated to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, which was not heard in public until 1967.
Around the same time Elgar also completed his memory of childhood pieces, Dream Children, and The Wand of Youth Suites, as well as composing the music for the West End play, The Starlight Express, plus several other pieces, including the opening of his opera, The Spanish Lady.
By 1931 Elgar’s Falstaff had at last been recorded, with HMV putting together a complete catalogue of the composer’s works.
Moving house, especially one in his home town, had done wonders for Elgar the man and Elgar the composer. He was in demand, and he must have enjoyed the views from the house as he contemplated new music.
‘Marl Bank’ was half way up Rainbow Hill “…and commanded wide views over Worcester and the surrounding countryside…” which is no doubt why Cromwell’s men had chosen it, and as Collett writes:
“ In front of the house was a lawn on two levels fringed with trees and an herbaceous border, planted under Elgar’s direction. On the western side was an octagonal thatched summer-house set at the angle of the wall which enclosed a sunken rose-garden.”
Elgar even purchased some old railings when Worcester Corporation decided to widen an old bridge across the Severn, using them in his own garden.
He was happy, and on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May, 1933, Sir Edward Elgar (after finishing a concert rehearsal with Menuhin), took a taxi from Paris and drove south to Grez-sur-Loing to see another celebrated English composer, his old friend Frederick Delius.
In 1933 both composers were in their 70s, with Delius blind and paralysed from syphilis, and although looking in remarkable health, Elgar was about to be diagnosed with cancer. Both composers would be dead within twelve months.
Their meeting, in the garden of Delius’s home, was at a time when Hitler was starting to flex his murderous muscles, a flexing that would change just about every long held opinion about society, race, religion, war, sex, children, and not least art and music.
And my play, A Summer Garden, is about all of those things, but it’s also about two elderly men, remembering lost times, places and people, with Delius’s artist wife, Jelka, still challenging the two dying men to make a difference to a new future, as they had done to great effect in the past.
There is no real record of that meeting other than they drank rather a lot of Champagne and laughed a good deal. But the meeting has become something — at least for me as a playwright — that epitomises, in a couple of sunny hours, the end of an era in which they had become somewhat forgotten and disparaged.
Listening to Elgar’s and Delius’s music today we realise just how revolutionary it was. Elgar, the self-taught composer who nevertheless revolutionised the standard symphonic form, whereas Delius — the conservatory trained musician of German parentage — invariably wrote single, long visceral movements, within which there might be many mood changes. What the two composers had in common though was, as with a poet, a visual and emotional aptitude that could capture landscape as well as interior emotions and passions. Listen again and you will also hear — as with Vaughan Williams — the sounds and use of huge chord clashes that has marked English music of the second half of the 20th century, and the early years of this century.
In those dark and threatening days of the 1930s, Elgar’s music was considered by many to be old fashioned. Nothing could have been further from the truth of course, with W.H. (Billy) Reed’s lovely 1936 memoir, Elgar: As I Knew Him, quickly helping to re-establish the composer as the great musician he was.
Let me quote you from the preface to give you some idea of how the book came about.
“At the insistence of Mr. Bernard Shaw, and many others of the friends and admirers of Sir Edward Elgar, I have been persuaded — I might almost say cajoled — into setting down these intimate and personal things concerning him, gathered during a close friendship extending over a period of nearly thirty years.
“I was very diffident about undertaking this task, knowing full well that there are many others possessed of literary ability and experience in writing who are far better qualified in that respect. It is one thing to tell these intimate anecdotes and happenings at the dinner-table or in ordinary conversation, and quite another to set them down in readable form to be perused in cold blood by the multitude.
“ It was pointed out to me, however, that I was probably the only person who had the close knowledge of those daily happenings, and the only person, therefore, who could set them down at first hand. I was flattered by being told that my memory was so good that I could repeat Elgar’s exact words in recounting any anecdotes, just as if he had made the remarks recorded in this book yesterday; but I knew very well that, if I did not make this effort soon, I should forget a good deal of it; in which case, most, if not all, of these otherwise unobtainable details of his life would be lost.”
Reed first met Elgar at the Queen’s Hall, London, in 1902:
“ We had been rehearsing his funeral march from Grania and Diarmid, and I was so thrilled by the music, and by what was to my ear the newness of the orchestral sound, that I left my seat among the first violins and followed him out through the curtains until I caught him up half way up the stairs.”
Reed excused himself for “…thrusting myself forward…” but breathlessly asked Elgar if he gave lessons in harmony, counterpoint.
“ My dear boy I don’t know anything about those things.”
“ Little did I then think that those few words exchanged on the stairs at Queen’s Hall…” were to be the start of an intimate friendship that would last until the day of Elgar’s death.
William Henry (Billy)Reed was born in France on July 29th 1876. He studied violin and composition at the London Royal Academy of Music, where he graduated with honours. By 1904 he’d joined the London Symphony Orchestra, and by 1912 had become leader, a position he held until 1935 when he became Chairman of the Orchestra. Throughout his career Reed taught violin at the Royal College of Music, conducted many amateur orchestras, and acted as an examiner and adjudicator. Apart from playing, teaching and adjudicating, Reed was also an accomplished composer, which included a Symphony for Strings, a Violin Concerto in A Minor, plus a good deal of very popular light orchestral pieces, most notably Down in the West Country and Aesop’s Fables. But for me it’s his beautiful collection of Chamber Music for Violin and Piano, which were recorded in 2004 by Dutton Digital, with Robert Gibbs (violin & viola), and Mary Mei-Loc-Wu on piano.
Throughout Billy Reed’s book we get superb insights into Elgar’s life, and how — with Reed’s own skill as a violinist — he managed to ‘organise’ his magnificent Violin Concerto, with Reed trying out the difficult passages to see if they could actually be done. We also see Elgar as a man of many passions, one of which was for chemistry (with resultant explosions) with a fully equipped laboratory set-up in a garden shed; in fact Elgar patented an apparatus for producing sulphuretted hydrogen known as the ‘S.H. Apparatus’. The shed (known as The Ark) was also used by Elgar and Reed to hide, from Lady Elgar, bottles of India Pale Ale they’d smuggled in from the local pub in a sack. And when you learn that Elgar, after a dinner party, liked nothing better than to entertain his guests with toys bought from Woolworths, you are suddenly very close to the heart of Elgar: to a man of fun (and childhood fun at that), fun that can be heard in all his music, but often darkened by periods of black depression that accompanies the fun at a discreet distance.
All of this is in Reed’s book, notably Elgar’s love of dogs, which was something he was only able to indulge in after Lady Elgar’s death in 1920, with Mina, a Cairn Terrier (he wrote a lovely piece of music named after her), and Marco, a Spaniel, becoming his inseparable companions, whose constant love, along with Bernard Shaw’s badgering, may have given Elgar the courage to accept the BBC’s commission to write a third symphony.
On the morning of November 20th, 1933, Reed received this telegram from Carice: ‘Father unconscious, sinking rapidly’.
I must quote in full Reed’s response to the telegram:
“ After the first shock, which seemed to numb my senses, I gradually realised its import, and, as its full meaning grew on me, hastened to the telephone. Yes; he was still unconscious and his doctor could not hold out much hope, but, just before he passed into this state, he was asking for me. Could I come as he might rally during the day? I hurriedly looked up the next train to Worcester. What time did it leave Paddington, and could I catch it?
“ I arrived at Worcester in the early afternoon, and was driven at once to the nursing-home, where Sir Edward was lying still unconscious, but, as was whispered to me, showing signs of improvement. I sat watching him for some time, noting his familiar features. They had scarcely changed during his illness: his hair was a little whiter perhaps, and his characteristic nose, with its high bridge, a trifle more prominent; but his colour was good, and he did not look very much thinner than before. “ While I was letting my mind run back over the thirty or more years during which he had honoured me with his closest friendship, he suddenly opened his eyes, and, looking intently into my face for a few seconds, uttered my name, as a smile stole over his face.”
Now, that is writing of the first order, and Reed goes on to explain how Elgar, as he fought unconsciousness told Reed that he must not allow anyone to ‘tinker’ with his 3rd Symphony, a request Reed agreed to. There can be no doubt that Reed’s hurried visit to Worcester that day in November 1933 gave Elgar the will to live a few more months, allowing him to die (his dogs at his side) in his own bed at Marl Bank on the 23rd of February 1934.
Reed died in Dumfries on July 2nd 1942.
In the late 1920s Elgar travelled widely, including Brazil, but never to New Zealand.
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)…