THE FINAL CHAPTER
by David Powys Hughes
On November 7 1931, the 74-year-old Elgar conducted a rehearsal of The Dream of Gerontius in Croydon. Sitting at the second desk of the first violins, in a state of excitement, was a devotee of Elgar's music named Vera Hockman. She later recalled: My heart and soul went out to him because his way was not to command the orchestra but to implore them to give all the fire and energy and poetry that was in them… I distinctly remember catching his eye, small and bright with the serene expression of a God who looks upon his creation and finds it good. As the rehearsal continued, more and more looks were exchanged… until it became a part of that sublime dream through which I was living. Vera was stunned to be told after the rehearsal that Sir Edward had asked for her, and she went with trembling limbs to meet the great man.
"I noticed your playing," he said, "and wanted to be introduced to you. I could see by your face that you understood my music."
"This is the most wonderful experience of my life to play for you," Vera replied.
Three days later came the performance… and, at the final rehearsal, other members of the orchestra noticed Sir Edward repeatedly gazing in Vera's direction. It was common knowledge how susceptible the composer could be to a pretty face. One of Vera's colleagues implored her not to look at him too much during the evening performance… "Or he'll lose his place."
At the post-concert party, Sir Edward monopolised the dark-haired, Jewish-born Vera—an estranged wife and mother of two children who was less than half his age—to the virtual exclusion of all other guests. A week later he invited her to lunch in London. Before leaving the table to order their food, he said: "Please don't vanish while I am gone. I am so afraid I shall come back and find it is all a dream."
Vera was touched by this apparent show of humility, and afterwards wrote: To think that, just because he wore that disguise of old age—and how swiftly that youthful and exuberant soul broke through the disguise—he should have to feel humble before an inferior being forty years his junior. Over the meal, they enthused about music and poetry… and there seemed so much to be done together that a whole lifetime would not be long enough, even if he were young.
Sir Edward pointed out: "But I am so old, you know, and the time is so short."
"Apropos of that," said Vera, "supposing you ever found yourself alone and free, I would gladly come… just for one hour or two. Distance is nothing to me."
A fortnight later, at Sir Edward's telegrammed request, Vera took the train to Worcester: My fiddle and I went. He was waiting at the station in the car with the two dogs. It was only two minutes drive to his dear, quiet old-world house on Rainbow Hill, with the lovely old lawns seeming to slope up and up to the Cathedral tower, the base line of the Malvern Hills beyond. Not a house in sight though in reality it was in the midst of them. It was just the place for him: garden, cathedral, hills and sky. We were like two happy and rather naughty children.
There they lunched, accompanied by the composer's dogs, Marco and Mina, who sat in their own chairs on either side begging for food. The host was so quiet and unfussy with his servants, yet so restless and impatient, and ceaselessly active; such a gorgeous medley of Michelangelesque faults and virtues.
Later, they played through the Violin Sonata or, as he would henceforth refer to it, Our Sonata.
"You understand this piece," he told her, "because you understand me and always have."
During the Romance movement, he was delirious with joy, and exclaimed: "Oh, this is such a lonely passage—I nearly always cry when I hear it, but I am not lonely today—we are together—I am so happy."
Elgar had been widowed for eleven years; and now he seemed to be falling in love, as only an old man—having believed all such experiences a closed book—can fall for a much younger woman who shows him affection in return. Nor, of course, was it the first time that a woman such as Vera would find herself drawn to a charismatic man, very much her senior, with feelings of awed admiration and the delicious realization of how much happiness it was in her power to bring him.
Exactly a month after their first meeting—the composer termed it their first 'mensiversary' since his age made doubtful their celebration of many years—Edward presented Vera with a gift of Longfellow's Hyperion which had belonged to his mother. "I want you to have it," he said, "because you are my mother, my child, my lover and my friend." This occasion was reported by Vera herself, and it is as explicit an admission as one is likely to hear from a respectable lady of the period that her relationship with Edward had tenderly progressed beyond that of mere friendship.
They spent a great deal of time together over the next two years, and something significant occurred not long after their relationship blossomed: Edward again began to compose in earnest. Since Lady Elgar's death eight months after the completion of the Cello Concerto, he had composed no large-scale works. The orchestrations of Bach, Handel and Chopin pieces; the King Arthur, Severn & Nursery Suites; a fifth Pomp & Circumstance March; and a handful of part songs—although accomplished and valuable within their own genres—were rather little to show for more than a decade. This fallow period may have been a crisis of style in the face of the new musical movements spearheaded by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Perhaps Elgar, the late Romantic, was seeking a fresh language appropriate to the 20th century. Certainly, his popularity had dwindled. As music commentator Constant Lambert put it: for many among the younger postwar generation, Elgar's music had through no fault of its own… an almost intolerable air of smugness, self-assurance and autocratic benevolence.
Much has been said of how the loss of Lady Alice, the "immovable rock" of Edward's life, had seriously affected his will to compose. It has also been suggested that he needed "muses", in the form of romantic attachments, to stimulate his creativity. Would it be wrong, therefore, to conjecture that Sir Edward's new liaison with Vera Hockman was a decisive factor in his suddenly embarking on at least two major compositional projects? Indeed, at their first lunch together, Edward had said to Vera: What music I would write if I could have you near to me always.
Elgar met the famous playwright, George Bernard Shaw, in 1919, and they became friends, in spite of radically opposing political views. Early in 1932, Shaw—to whom the composer was in debt to the tune of £1000!—proposed, in his inimitable fashion, that Elgar write a Financial Symphony: "Allegro: Impending Disaster. Lento Mesto: Stony Broke. Scherzo: Light Heart and Empty Pocket. All° con brio: Clouds Clearing." He also thought Elgar should get the BBC to commission the work because it could "afford it". Ultimately, the BBC did exactly that—if not a Financial, then a Third Symphony—and Elgar started sketching immediately.
As well as toying with a long-projected piano concerto and the third part of The Apostles oratorio, he had also begun work on (if we discount a few abandoned operatic sketches made in 1909) his first opera project, entitled The Spanish Lady. It would be based on a lesser known comedy by Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson. Elgar approached Sir Barry Jackson (playwright and founder of both the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the Malvern Festival) to prepare a libretto. Jackson later recalled having seen numberless sheets of Elgar's manuscript with a large B.J. in the corner, and suspected he'd been chosen—in preference to an experienced librettist—largely for his shared initials with the original Jacobean playwright. Another mischievous Elgarian gesture? Quite possibly.
Unfortunately for us, the composer had spread himself too thin with these demanding, simultaneous challenges. He was never to complete the concerto, oratorio, opera or symphony… although three of the works have, to different degrees, been subsequently reconstructed.
A few months before his death and close to delirium, the dying Sir Edward would insist that nobody tinker with his symphonic sketches because they were all bits and pieces and no one would understand, no one. However, we can be immensely grateful to Anthony Payne for giving us (and to the Elgar family for condoning) a performable version of the Third Symphony in which are embedded significant amounts of Elgar's own material. With its uncompromisingly strident open fifths, the beginning of the symphony (orchestrated by Elgar himself) presents one of the most thrilling passages in all symphonic literature—certainly some of the leanest and most impressive music Elgar ever wrote. The second subject, passionately tender, bears over it (in an early sketch) Sir Edward's touching inscription of Vera Hockman's initials; and this, in turn, leads to one of the most wonderfully expansive of all Elgarian melodies. We are obliged to recognize in this exposition section alone (happily, sketched complete by the composer in piano score) an entirely new stylistic period: taut, confident, and classically economical. It is tragic that fate cheated Elgar (and thereby us) of that last two or three months of active life which would very likely have been sufficient to complete this extraordinary symphonic masterpiece in the making.
Even so, in these last years of life, Elgar was busy with many other significant projects. Enthusiastic as ever about the latest advances in science, he was taking advantage of new technologies, including the electric microphone, to record for posterity personal interpretations of his own compositions. These included the famed collaboration with 15-year-old Yehudi Menuhin in July 1932. Their performance of the Violin Concerto has remained in the 78, then the LP & CD catalogues almost continuously till the present day. On 2 September 1932, a group of friends gathered with Elgar at his house to listen to the test pressings. Among the guests were George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Elgar's daughter Carice (with whom he had formed a close bond since Lady Alice's death), and also Vera Hockman. Vera later recalled that after Menuhin had lovingly lingered over the last melting phrase of the slow movement, Edward had whispered to her: This is where two souls merge and melt into one another.
The following year, Elgar performed the Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin in Paris, and made his first flight in an aeroplane to get there. On that same French trip, he made a detour to visit the 71-year-old, blind and partially paralyzed Frederick Delius at Grez-sur-Loing. Elgar described to his fellow English composer the sensation of powered flight: There is a delightful feeling of elation in sailing through gold and silver clouds. It is, Delius, rather like your music—a little intangible sometimes, but always very beautiful. I should have liked to stay there for ever. The descent is like our old age—peaceful, even serene.
European peace and serenity were meanwhile threatened by the advent of Hitler's Nazism…
I am in a maze regarding events in Germany, Sir Edward wrote to an old friend in March 1933. What are they doing? The Jews have always been my best and kindest friends. The pain of these news is unbearable and I do not know what it really means.
Within months, Elgar himself was under threat. He was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. The growth pressed on his sciatic nerve, and through his final months he was administered morphine to relieve the intense pain.
Nevertheless, just one month and a day before his death, he was able to supervise a recording session held at Abbey Road studios in London of his cantata, Caractacus. Amazingly, Sir Edward did this from his terminal sick bed at home in Worcestershire via a state-of-the-art telephone link!
Edward Elgar's life came to a peaceful end some time between 7.30 and 8 am on 23 February 1934. Carice, who was sitting beside him, wrote that he just slept away.
It is unclear whether Elgar died a Catholic despite being given the last rites. He had become more openly sceptical since Lady Alice's death, and he told his doctor very near the end that he had no faith whatever in an afterlife and believed there was nothing but complete oblivion. He also asked to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Teme. He was however dissuaded from this by Carice and is now buried next to his wife at St. Wulstan's Church in Little Malvern.
FIRST ESSAY: HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
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