Sunday, April 21, 2013

Elgar's Last Love

Elgar's Last Love

Sir Edward Elgar

There can be nothing closer to a heavenly sound, a world known only in distant dreams and visions, than the slow, exquisite diatonic melody that opens the first part of Elgar's First Symphony. The sound is stately yet haunting; as Elgar would himself say, 'broad, noble, chivalrous.'  His wife Alice called it the 'great and beautiful tune.'  It is more than that; listening to the sombre depth of the woodwind and the haunting long drawn out sigh of the violins and violas sends shivers through me.   It's another world, another land which beckons and awaits one . . . somewhere.  I could listen to it again and again.  He has been called the greatest composer of the symphony there is and I agree with this judgement   It's no surprise to know that this long awaited symphony, played for the first time by the Halle Orchestra in Manchester and four days later in London, met with such rapturous applause. Elgar was called back again and again; the audience would not let him go with many standing up on their chairs in order to see him.

The 'great and beautiful tune' began while he tinkled idly on the piano.  His wife suddenly exclaimed.  'I like that tune' and from then on it remained in Elgar's head for a long time before at last becoming the opening passage of his symphony.  Nor did the symphony itself come with ease.  It seemed to waver always somewhere in the back of his psyche and the opening theme may be said to be his 'soul' sound, held there since a young boy sitting in the reeds by Severn side and heard music flowing through the river, the trees, the air . . .

In an interview Elgar once said, 'my idea is that there is music in the air, music all around, the world is full of it. . . and you simply ...simply...simply...take as much of it as you require.'

Elgar and Alice Roberts

Like all creative men, the 'puer' type, Elgar needed a strong, mother figure in his life to sort out all the practicalities while he could dream, compose, conduct, weave his glorious melodies. I's a great and natural arrangement , one which he found through a staunch, loyal wife.  Alice Roberts met Elgar when he was teaching the piano at Malvern.  He was twenty nine, always a significant age in human life.  She was just turning thirty eight and the daughter of a Major General, a social class way above that of the piano tuner's son.  These foolish social complexities mattered in those days.  However, Alice felt convinced of Elgar's genius and they married despite the disapproval of many, including her parents who refused to attend the wedding.  She ended her life as Lady Elgar so that must have proved her point.
In many important ways, it is Alice we have to thank for Elgar's music.  She was a keen poetess but abandoned her own interests in order to urge and encourage her husband  in his own pursuits.  As she once said, 'The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman'. Without her strong and dominant nature, he might never have brought his attention fully to work on longer, deeper compositions; part of him seemed always to want to escape and dream, cycle endlessly around the lovely Worcestershire countryside, gaze from his window at the rolling hills.  So true of the creative type!  The actual production of the work is the hardest part of all and often seems like giving birth, as if something is born but parts from within one's soul, never to return.  The unborn is always full of possibilities, once born it is in some ways already dead.

Like so many creative people, he seldom made much money and had to produce a variety of songs and small pieces to earn their keep.  This is a sad reflection on our modern age which pays much to the mediocre but doesn't foster the talents of the great.  'All about the money' . . . as Elgar would have said despairingly.

Elgar sought for his anima, his soul figure in a variety of women and he in turn was extremely attractive to them. Alice was the rock, the mainstay, the mother figure, but such men need a passionate romantic interest to fire their creativity.  This inner figure is like the mate of the creative spirit, rather than the mate of the body, belonging within the psyche rather than in prosaic outer life.  Projected onto a real woman, it can stir the creative impulses and produce the wonderful 'child'.  There might or might not be physical mating as well.  In a way, that is unimportant, in fact it might even destroy the illusion, the romance.  It is a spiritual quest, the quest of the Troubador. 
Alice Stuart Wortley

Like Dickens, Elgar had a first love when he was a young man.  This girl broke their engagement and left for New Zealand.  How different things might have been if he had made this more ordinary, provincial marriage rather than meeting the strong minded Alice Roberts!  Would his genius have flowered then, one wonders? Elgar was later to meet another Alice, daughter of Millais the Pre Raphaelite painter.  He formed a lifelong romantic friendship with Alice Stuart Wortley and though he, his wife and her husband were all friends, the couple did meet up clandestinely on occasions.  Elgar called this Alice 'Windflower' and dedicated his Violin Concerto to her.  He was fond of putting the sounds of his friends into music as we see in Enigma variations. There is no doubt that the relationship with 'Windflower' was very special to him for many years and Elgar alludes to summer evenings full of romance in some of his letters.
When his wife Alice died in 1920 Elgar was devastated and ceased to write any more after this. 'All I have done was owing to her and I am at present a sad and broken man.'  He wrote to a friend after her funeral. He had lost his driving force in the shape of this strong and supportive woman and he mourned her.  The energy of composition seemed to go with her but it was also his sense of the change in the world since the horrors of the First World War.  He knew nothing would ever be the same again and his music was no longer appreciated by the younger generation who saw him as part of the old regime that had created the war.  George Bernard Shaw deplored the fact that Elgar's music was being neglected and the Shaw festivals were created at Malvern to honour it and also Shaw's plays. Nowadays, Elgar is once more appreciated as a great composer and belongs especially to Worcestershire and the beauty of the great rivers and the rolling Malvern Hills which Elgar loved so much.  He is everywhere here in Worcestershire, his music flows about one as one walks the hills, soft echoing, rolling melodies, gentle as the scenery about one, full of space, light and yet tinged with sadness.
Carice Elgar

Elgar cut off his relationships with many of his previous lady admirers and friends apart from 'Windflower' with whom he kept up a distant friendship, passion long gone.  His only child, Carice, grew closer to him now whereas in her youth she had been sent away to boarding shcools and generally kept out of her father's way so as not to disturb him.  He seemed to feel his time was over, a lonely, unhappy man.  His energies turned to the pursuits of a country gentleman with dogs, horse-racing and walks.  But at the same time, he no longer seemed interested in convention, freer to be himself, one of the joys of old age.
The programme in which Elgar noted their first meeting

Thus he was open and like fallow ground when the momentous story of November 1st 1931 unfolded.  Momentous for him and for a young violinist in the orchestra he was conducting that day.  The date became a part of their private story, a sudden and amazing meeting of soul mates. The name of the violinist was Vera Rebecca Hockman, a sweet natured, gentle, warm, Jewish girl.  She already had a hero worship for the great composer and felt she knew him through his music as if already a part of his soul.  She was thrilled to be among the first violins when Elgar was asked to conduct 'Dream of Gerontius' at the Croydon Triennial Festival. As she played she realised he kept looking at her over and over again and afterwards asked to be introduced to her.  They swiftly struck up a deep loving friendship.  Vera accompanied him often as he couldn't bear to part with her company.  She was a married woman with a daughter but she and her husband had separated long before but nonetheless, conventions required that they kept their unusual (and likely to be misunderstood) friendship fairly low key in the eyes of others. Elgar may have considered marriage but his own daughter Carice was alarmed by the idea although she had no personal animosity towards Vera.  In fact they became very good friends and Carice really enjoyed the other girl's company, a fact she often noted in her diary.  Vera was one of those happy people who brought joy and peace to others.

Vera Hockman 
Elgar said that Vera made him so happy and his great regret was there was so little time due to the vast age difference. He had been a sad and troubled man all his life but this warm, accepting, tender woman was able to give him this joy in his old age and remained with him till he died in 1934.  The feeling she created in him at last brought him out of his creative lethargy and he began to compose the Third Symphony, dedicating one of its movements to VH.  He said that she was 'my mother, my child, my lover and my friend.' 

How wonderful a tribute for any woman.   How I envy her!

The Third Symphony sadly remained unfinished, a 'great tragedy' as T.H.  Lawrence put it. Perhaps in another world, Elgar and Vera may meet and the symphony finish there.  It's a nice thought. 


Raymond Nickford said...

As a lifelong devotee of Edward Elgar's music and life, I read this article with real interest. The facts are one thing, but it is in the choice; the selection of those facts that we have mirrored the view of Loretta Proctor and it is that which makes it unique and for me, something of a new window to peer through into the effect that Elgar has on those who appreciate him.
If, like all of us, we see weaknesses here and there in his choices, then they tend to reflect the emotional vulnerability of an artist who his doctor once referred to as having some symptoms of the manic depressive. Yet if there is some truth in this, I believe it should be celebrated; for out of the intensity of Elgar's highs and lows follow those very notes which in symphony, sacred choral or chamber music can bring to quiet moments insights which can be expressed only in the beauty of his music.
A real pleasure to find this article.

Loretta Proctor said...

Thanks for the lovely comment, Raymond. It's good to hear from othger Elgar enthusiasts!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I couldn't stop reading this, partly out of interest in learning more about Elgar, who sounds like such an interesting composer, and partly because the writing was so beautiful. I felt like I really entered his life through this lovely post. I have to confess, I love classical music, but I have not heard this particular piece of music. Now Elgar's First Symphony tops my list of music I must find. Thanks for a fine, discovery.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

PS: I am following your blog now.

Loretta Proctor said...

Thank you so much, Elisabeth. I''m glad you enjoyed it. I am always so inspired when listening to his music and had to speak of what I felt!

Anonymous said...

I have been told that the house we live in Croham Road, Croydon, once belonged to Edgar's muse - from your post and other references I have discovered, it appears that our house may have been the residence of Vera Hockman. I was wondering if you have come across her address in Croydon at all during your research? Here's hoping!
Many thanks

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