An ancient fort on the Malvern Hills was the inspiration for one of Elgar's works, writes Christopher Morley.
The name of Edward Elgar was already well established on the choral society circuit by 1897, with The Black Knight, The Light of Life, King Olaf and The Banner of St George already behind him.
Not much remains in the memory from those works, apart from King Olaf’s mawkish chorus “As Torrents in Summer”, still favourite chorus-fodder today, but they did much to establish Elgar’s reputation; to the extent that in 1897 he received a commission to compose a work for the Leeds Festival of 1898, one of the most highly-regarded festivals in the land, with its chorus of rich, sturdy Yorkshire voices.
Before that commission came, Elgar’s mother, Ann Elgar, had planted a seed in her son’s mind. She had left the family music shop in Worcester’s High Street for a holiday in Colwall, and later wrote to her daughter Polly, who was living in Stoke Prior, near Bromsgrove, of an incident which occurred on August 4: “When I was staying at Colwall E and Alice came to see me – on going out we stood at the door looking along the back of the hills – the Beacon in full view
“I said, Oh! Ed. Look at the lovely old hill. Can’t we write some tale about it. I quite long to have something worked up about it; so full of interest and so much historical interest.”
She was looking up at the British Camp on top of the Herefordshire Beacon on the Malvern Hills, which is marked with earthworks constructed by the great British king Caractacus as defences against the Roman invaders.
Elgar had already had the idea to write a purely orchestral work along the lines of “Mottoes from English history”, a series of illustrative movements on Caractacus, St Augustine, King Canute, purely orchestral (a glimmering structure which was to come to fruition in the Enigma Variations, another work even more deeply rooted in the environs of Malvern).
But Leeds insisted upon a cantata, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and Caractacus was decided upon, with Harry Acworth, who had added his two-penn’orth to Longfellow for King Olaf, the librettist.
And what a dud choice he proved to be, setting this tale of British resistance, tree-worshipping Druids, and the love-interest of Eigen, Caractacus’ daughter, with a young druid bard, with lines which included such gems as “Behind the dark Silurian hills.”
Rosa Burley, headmistress of the Mount School in Malvern, where the Elgars sent their daughter Carice to board, just around the corner from the family home, wrote of Elgar immersing himself in the tale of Caractacus: “He walked all over the ground. He tramped over the hills and went along the Druid path from end to end, along the top of the hills.”
And on one of those walks he happened upon Birchwood Lodge in Storridge, remote from the bustle of Malvern, and which he rented in order to complete Caractacus in solitude, and where not many years later he was to complete an infinitely greater work, The Dream of Gerontius.
Elgar hit his habitual slough of depression during the creation of any major composition, and on March 29 1898, midway through Caractacus he wrote to Nicholas Kilburn, way up in Bishop Auckland, and later to be the dedicatee of Elgar’s last great festival choral work, The Music Makers: “I have just arrived at hating what I have done and feeling a fool for having done it – but my wife says I always do that at certain stages: anyway there are some gorgeous noises in it – but I can’t say how much music – but it ‘flows on somehow’ like the other best of me.”