Painful end for great composer Elgar
Christopher Morley discusses Elgar’s legacy 75 years after his death.
The last few months of Elgar’s life were painful ones. Painful for him physically, and painful for those surrounding him as they helplessly witnessed his distress.
For years he had been an hypochondriac, playing on his afflictions in order to enlist sympathy and marshal excuses for lack of compositional productivity. It was widely suspected that he would do the same when he would be found unable to complete his Third Symphony, commissioned by the BBC in 1932 at the instigation of George Bernard Shaw for the huge sum in those days of £1,000.
But early in the autumn of 1933 his “sciatic pain” was confirmed as inoperable cancer, and he became bedridden. In great pain he was still able to dictate letters.
To his old friend Florence Norbury (sister of one of the “Enigma” Variations) he wrote: “I lie here hour after hour thinking of our beloved Teme – surely the most beautiful river that ever was – I love it more than any other.”
Elgar told his daughter Carice that he wanted his ashes to be buried at the confluence of the rivers Teme and Severn, but this was not to be.
He was actually buried in the churchyard of St Wulstan’s Church, Little Malvern, alongside his wife Alice, and where later they were joined by their daughter.
The consulant Arthur Thomson came from Birmingham to see him, and was told by Elgar that he “had no faith whatever in an afterlife: ‘I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion’”.
There was still the question of the unfinished Third Symphony, and here the BBC showed itself at its most callous, asking Elgar’s doctors if cutting his spinal chord might relieve his pain and leave his mind clear to compose. Naturally the ghoulish suggestion was rejected.
Elgar received visits from the critic Ernest Newman, to whom he apparently said five revelatory words which the self-aggrandising Newman announced were too personal ever to be disclosed (a whole Elgar industry has been built on this sort of parasitism), and from his violinist friend Billy Reed, to whom he entrusted a scribbled scrap of sketches from the Symphony. “Billy, this is the end,” he said, with tears running down his cheeks, “don’t let anyone tinker with it.”
And Billy Reed kept more of the symphony’s secrets to himself than he ever let on (that conspiracy of self-important silence again) until Anthony Payne discovered over 100 pages of sketches in the British Library and achieved his miraculous realisation of the symphony just over a decade ago. But there were also kindnesses, with Delius, equally suffering, sending him from his home just outside Paris barley-sugar made by nuns.
Early in 1934 Elgar was taken home to his house, Marl Bank in Worcester, overlooking the Cathedral (sadly, the house is no longer there). Morphine injections were frequent, but at the end of January he was able to supervise, via a GPO landline, a recording being made in the HMV Studios at Abbey Road in London of orchestral extracts from his cantata Caractacus.
Lawrance Collingwood conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in this music which had been inspired by Elgar’s mother nearly half a century previously, when she had asked her son if he couldn’t possibly find a subject connected with their beloved Malvern Hills.
Towards the end, when Elgar was unconscious from the drugs, a Catholic priest came to see him in an attempt to administer the Last Rites. Elgar, defiantly critical of God and the Church, squeezed the priest’s hand from within his coma. He died in the early morning of February 23, 1934, 75 years ago next Monday.
On Saturday, February 28 the English Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Elgar Chorale, in the presence of the choir’s patron, Dame Janet Baker (one of the greatest-ever Elgar interpreters) and the St Peter’s Singers from Leeds in a 75th anniversary concert at Worcester Cathedral. Donald Hunt conducts the programme, concluding with the First Symphony, with its “great charity and massive hope for the future”, and beginning with The Music Makers (mezzo-soprano soloist Catherine Wyn-Rogers), with its heartbreaking and appropriate line “A singer who sings no more”.
* The Worcester Cathedral concert begins at 7.30pm, with details on 01386 791044.