Sussex Life November 2016 Poetry + solution
Solution for ‘Spirit of England’ piece by Tony Ward in the November issue
Keep an eye out for the Poetry+ piece in our December issue where you’ll find a discount offer for Tony Ward’s book, Unravelling Sussex which has more Poetry+ conundrums. It is published on 3 November by The History Press.
Who is it? Spirit of England
Teacher, performer, composer,
paradox, patriot, herald,
Master of the King’s Musick.
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Symphonies, overtures, concertos,
songs and marches, variations,
portraits of friends, Enigmas.
His spirit, the spirit of England,
his driving force, his wife.
Acclaimed by his peers,
Honoured at home,
A silver wedding,
but a breaking storm.
Depressed, but doing his duty, doing his best,
the patriotic pieces, The Starlight Express,
collapsed, in failing health, the time to leave, retreat.
A Sussex cottage, woodland walks,
spirits lifted, health restored,
music in the air once more.
His last great masterpiece,
Simple, sublime, profound,
no longer pomp and swagger.
Strings tugging at heart strings,
Concerto for a dying wife?
Is it this which makes us cry?
Solution – Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934) – an English composer of international stature.
Explanation of embedded clues
Sir Edward Elgar is most closely associated with Worcestershire, his birthplace, his base for most of his life and the county to which he returned in his ‘retirement’. He was at heart ‘a man of the Malverns’ where, in his younger days, he enjoyed cycling and, for as long as he was able, walking his ‘beloved hills’. A stay in Sussex though, at a difficult time, revived his spirits and resulted in the composition of one of his greatest masterpieces.
As well as teaching and performing, he had been composing since his early thirties. He was a trained musician, more than competent on a range of instruments – piano, organ, violin and bassoon, all available to him in his father’s music shop. As a composer though he was largely self-taught. Over the next ten years his reputation gradually spread beyond the county borders.
The piece that really catapulted him to fame came at the age of 42. This was his ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ (The Enigma Variations), dedicated to ‘my friends pictured within’. The piece is signposted in verse 2. There are fourteen friends, each piece being accompanied by a cryptic subtitle as to their identity. ‘Nimrod’ is known to be August Jaeger of Novellos (the music publishers). The others are not so evident. Variation 11 is even thought to be ‘Dan’, a friend’s bulldog!
“Symphonies, overtures, concertos, songs and marches” were to follow. These included – the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, The Dream of Gerontius, Symphonies No. 1 and 2 and the Violin Concerto.
By the age of 55 Elgar’s talents as a composer had been recognised by a Knighthood, Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Oxford and Yale and the Award of the Order of Merit. He was being talked about as the first English composer of international stature since Henry Purcell, some 200 years before. He was in great demand as a conductor both in this country and abroad. In 1911 he was appointed conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Reluctantly, he and his wife eventually decided that it would be more practical to move to London. They moved in to Severn House, in Hampstead, on New Year’s Day 1912.
Two years later saw the outbreak of the First World War. Already overworked by the need to take on more and more conducting engagements to pay the mortgage, Elgar was also “doing his duty” first as a special constable and then in the Volunteer Force (Home Guard). His composing suffered. In the first three years of the War he produced no major new works to compare with his earlier successes. The line in the poem, “The patriotic pieces, The Starlight Express” identifies some of the ‘lesser works’ he produced in this period. ‘Starlight Express’, a title also later to be used by Andrew Lloyd Webber for a rock musical, was a set of instrumental music for a children’s play.
Among the few notable pieces are his settings of three war poems by Laurence Binyon, who wrote ‘For the Fallen’. This is the poem used in Remembrance Sunday services which contains the famous line, to be found on thousands of war memorials, ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old’. These settings he christened The Spirit of England. This is the title which I borrowed for this piece as I felt that it encapsulated both the man and his music.
By the third year of the war his problems had come to a head. He was “doing his best”, but unsurprisingly, he was finding it all deeply depressing. “Until … collapsed , in failing health, the time to leave, retreat”. He needed to get away. Alice, his wife, and Carice, their daughter, set out to find a country retreat where they could recharge their batteries.
His salvation was to be found in Sussex. ‘Brinkwells’ was a cottage deep in the beech woods near Fittleworth, West Sussex. The cottage provided the peace and quiet that Elgar needed. He walked in the woods, he climbed the undemanding hill to take in the views, he loved it. They sub-let the cottage from a local artist, Rex Vicat Cole, whose painting ‘The Weald of Sussex from Brinkwells’ (1906) pictured the sweep of woodland that also inspired Elgar. Cole’s wife described the cottage itself as having been ‘dropped bodily, garden and all, into an enchanted wood’.
This was exactly what Elgar needed, within a short time he recovered, “spirits lifted, health restored, music in the air once more”. The phrase ‘music in the air’ is taken from an earlier (1896) conversation in which Elgar explained his philosophy, ‘My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require’. He certainly ‘took’ from his setting at Brinkwells. Just as the artist, Rex Vicat Cole’s greatest source of inspiration was trees, so two of Elgar’s three chamber works produced at Brinkwells, a Violin Sonata and a Piano Quintet, ‘have a strong sense of the mystery of woodlands’ (Peter Brandon, The Discovery of Sussex). Elgar was on a roll. His third work was a String Quartet, and then his last great masterpiece, the Cello Concerto in E minor. This has become an international concert and recording favourite both with audiences and all the leading cellists since. Definitive recordings have been made by Jacqueline Du Pré (1965), Julian Lloyd Webber (1985), Steven Isserlis (1988) and Paul Tortelier (1998). All four pieces were again large-scale works. Alice wrote in her diary, ‘E. writing wonderful new music’. Sussex had wrought its magic.
But the Cello Concerto was a different beast from much of his earlier work, “no longer pomp and swagger”. It has been described as “Simple, sublime, profound”. There is an air of sadness, of impending loss. The year after its first performance in 1919, Alice, his wife and constant companion for over 30 years, died at the age of 72 from lung cancer. The final verse attempts to capture the emotions commonly awakened in audiences and soloists alike. On the classicfm website (see references) top cellist Steven Isserlis gives his own explanation of the question, ‘Why does Elgar’s Cello Concerto make us cry?’
Elgar had taken on Caroline Alice Roberts (Alice) as one of his piano pupils in 1886, when he was 29. Alice was 8 years older than him. Three years later they were married. Elgar’s biographer Michael Kennedy wrote, ‘Alice’s family was horrified by her intention to marry an unknown musician who worked in a shop (his father’s music shop) and was a Roman Catholic. She was disinherited’. It is often said that ‘behind every great man there is a great woman’. Alice was Elgar’s lifelong inspiration and support. Alice was also creative in her own right. She wrote poetry. Elgar’s 1896 work Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands were settings of his wife’s poems inspired by holidays in Germany. Alice never lost faith in her husband’s latent genius. She was “his driving force”. She freed him from household tasks. It was she who did the house-hunting, took his parcels of manuscripts to the post, even ruled bar lines on score paper for him.
When she died he was devastated. He returned to his roots in Worcestershire. Alice was buried in St Wulstan’s Church, Little Malvern. The powers that be perhaps assumed that he had finally ‘retired’ and so now was the time to add to his existing Honours, “acclaimed by his peers,/ Honoured at home,/ Honoured abroad,/ recognition, reward”. He was given the historic title of ‘Master of the King’s Musick’, appointed to the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO, later upgraded to GCVO), and in 1931 created First Baronet of Broadheath (his birthplace). He still carried out occasional conducting and recording engagements (including at Abbey Road Studios, in later years also the choice of The Beatles). But he mainly indulged his hobbies, ‘cheerfully spending hours over some perfectly unnecessary and entirely unremunerative undertaking’ (recollections by his daughter, Carice).
However, during the last few years of his life he succumbed to the persuasion of his friend, the playwright and critic (George) Bernard Shaw to take up composition again. He began work on an opera, The Spanish Lady, a piano concerto, and a Third Symphony. This last had been commissioned by the BBC at Shaw’s urging. He was no longer ‘driven’ though, the symphony was not completed. Sir Edward Elgar died on 23 February 1934, at the age of 76. It was the end of an era. The same year saw the deaths of two other English composers, Gustav Holst (25 May) and Frederick Delius (10 June).
The first verse of the poem contains the line “paradox, patriot, herald”. “Patriot” is perhaps the easiest to explain. The Trio section of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D, was at King Edward VII’s suggestion provided, by Arthur Christopher Benson, with some accompanying words. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is now a staple of The Last Night of the Proms, as indeed is Elgar’s song cycle, Sea Pictures, for contralto and orchestra. The words “paradox” and “herald” reflect Elgar’s interest in the English musical tradition of Oratorios, while at the same time he heralded the 20th-century English musical renaissance. Richard Strauss controversially toasted Elgar as the first “English progressivist” composer.
Elgar is sometimes denigrated as just a ‘quintessentially English’ composer. But one could say that Wagner is just ‘quintessentially German’ or Tchaikovsky just ‘quintessentially Russian’. Every composer is a product of their culture.
Anthony Burgess writing in The Observer in 1983 put it as follows: ‘Elgar is not manic enough to be Russian, not witty or pointilliste enough to be French, not harmonically simple enough to be Italian and not stodgy enough to be German. We arrive at his Englishry by pure elimination’.
Acknowledgement of sources
• Peter Brandon, The Discovery of Sussex, Phillimore, 2010 (p. 204)
• Marcus Weeks, Sussex Music, Snake River Press, 2008, (shows the extent of Sussex’s musical heritage)
• www.elgar.org/2english.htm (A Short Biography by Ian Lace, Elgar Society).
• www.classicfm.com/composers/elgar (an informal and unusual collection of facts on Elgar’s life).
• www.classicfm.com/composers/elgar/cello-concerto-guide-steven-isserlis (‘Why does Elgar’s Cello Concerto make us cry?’, an exploration by a top cellist, Steven Isserlis, containing audio/video clip extracts).
• www.victorianweb.org/mt/elgar/chronology.html (a chronology of Sir Edward Elgar and his world, placing him within significant events of his time).
• Relevant websites found by searches for ‘Sir Edward Elgar’, ‘Sir Edward Elgar in Sussex’, ‘Recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto’, ‘Sir Edward Elgar quotes’, ‘Sir Edward Elgar timeline’.