Elgar's land of pomp and circumstance

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 16th September 2007.

When we were children, my father would talk about his Uncle Edward. One story in particular left the vivid impression of a humorous, twinkle-eyed prankster, even though he was well into old age.


Inspiration: Elgar's much-loved Malvern Hills

Elgar coerced his 12-year-old great nephew, my father, into crouching alongside him at an upstairs window and shooting peas at the retreating figure of the grocer, a pompous man, as he left the house. Much to their chagrin, their missiles fell short.

This was at Perryfield, the Worcestershire home of Elgar's favourite sister, Pollie, my father's grandmother. The impression we always had was of a warm, approachable man, and it was only when I grew up that I came to realise that Elgar had a complex personality, prone both to elation and to depression.

"Nervous, sensitive and kind" was how his mother described her newest son, born in a small, redbrick cottage at Broadheath, near Malvern, in 1857. And so, it seems, he remained.

It's years since I've been to the Elgar Birthplace Museum, but in this 150th anniversary year of his birth, it's time to revisit, and also to see if we can shed light on a family mystery. It's a charming place, redolent of the man, and overseen by knowledgeable staff.

Once Elgar's musical life has been explored in the visitor centre, his personal life is revealed in the birthplace itself, tucked quietly out of sight through a little gate, with a flower-filled garden. It was in the study, in whatever house he happened to be living at the time (there were 25 in all), that he would write the music that he had composed earlier that day in the open air, walking or cycling or even playing golf.

Places meant a great deal to Elgar. At his favourite home, Birchwood Lodge, with views of his beloved Malvern Hills, he found particular peace and inspiration, writing that "the trees are singing my music – or have I sung theirs?" and composing the whole of his masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius.

People, too, were central to a man who always felt an outsider, conscious of his humble roots and his Catholic upbringing, despite all his accolades. I doubt if he would have ever have become celebrated if it hadn't been for Alice, his wife and his rock. It's no surprise that his most famous work, the Enigma Variations, were sketches of 12 of his friends, plus himself and Alice.

And the mystery? Two years before he died, Elgar made a new will. In it, he left his estate to his childless daughter, Carice, to be held on trust partly for five of Pollie's six children. The sixth? My grandfather, Vincent.

And so, suddenly curious in this anniversary year, my sister and I wandered about the Birthplace, trying to puzzle out why a mild, pipe-smoking bank manager from Droitwich should have been excluded from Elgar's legacy.

Family legend says that it was because Vincent married a non-Catholic, but Chris Bennett, supervisor of the museum, feels that doesn't ring true: after all, Elgar had married a non-Catholic himself. Perhaps he simply couldn't stand my grandmother, a miserable lady who considered my mother a scarlet woman simply because she came from London.

My father died 15 years ago, but my mother's memory of Vincent was of a man who had retreated to the greenhouse, and who evidently held the same opinion about his wife as his uncle Edward did.

Leaving the Birthplace, we set off on the Elgar Route, a circular drive taking in more than 40 places associated with the composer's life and music.

We admired the extravagant villas of Great Malvern, tumbling down the eastern skirts of the Malvern Hills; the lovely stained-glass window dedicated to the composer in gloomy Worcester Cathedral; and the extraordinary views from those nine long-backed, round-topped hills that rise without prelude, like a child's painting, from the Severn plain below.

We found some of the houses in which he lived: Craig Lea, Forli and Marl Bank; and his grave, and that of his wife and daughter in St Wulstan's Church at Malvern Wells.

I am pathetically proud of my very tenuous association with Elgar, despite his having made my family outsiders. But though I haven't inherited an iota of his musical abilities, I think I understand how he ticked as a man, warts and all.

And do I connect with his love of place, the Malvern Hills in particular.

Map courtesy of the Elgar Birthplace Museum and local councils

The Elgar Birthplace Museum (01905 333224, www.elgarfoundation.org).

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