Edward Elgar, St Peter’s and Wolverhampton Wanderers have a lot in common, writes Christopher Morley.
In February 1898, Edward Elgar was part of the crowd at Molineux, watching a football match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City, two of the founder members of the Football League a decade earlier.
His companion was the young Dora Penny, daughter of the Rector of St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, and soon to be immortalised as the stammering, dancing “Dorabella” in Elgar’s matchless Enigma Variations of 1899.
Elgar’s alleged love of football, and of Wolves in particular, might perhaps have been exaggerated over the years. He had to ask Dora early on in their acquaintance (her stepmother was a friend of Elgar’s wife), on which day did Wolves play?
Some football-follower who had to ask a question like that. And I cannot believe what chroniclers tell us, that Elgar and Dora’s first match together was when Wolves Reserves beat Singers’ FC in the Birmingham League, in front of a crowd of 60,000. Sixty thousand for a reserves match?
Whatever the numbers involved, Dora paints a graphic picture of the atmosphere in her book Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation: “It all delighted him.
"The dense crowd flowing down the road like a river; the roar of welcome as the rival teams came on to the ground; the shouts of men calling to their player-friends by their Christian names – usually considerably shortened; the staccato ‘Aw!’ at a mishap (a most remarkable sound from a crowd of 60,000); and the deafening roar that greeted a goal.”
But to return to this Staffordshire local derby early in 1898, which Keith Alldritt brilliantly reconstructs in his well-researched novel Elgar on the Journey to Hanley.
Elgar was taken with the turn of phrase of a local football reporter who described a successful shot on target in the words “he banged the leather for goal”.
Spontaneously, Elgar set these words to music, a dramatic phrase involving a descending minor ninth over excitable tremolandi in the accompaniment, with a crashing downward flourish. He was tempted to include this outburst in the great cantata Caractacus he was composing at the time, but wisely decided against it.
And at the end of this month we will be able to hear these notes for the first time, when the Choirs of St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, perform the fragment, expanded into an anthem by director of music Peter Morris.
This will be the novelty in a concert devoted otherwise to more “serious” Elgar, featuring the Wolverhampton Symphony Orchestra: the first Wand of Youth Suite, some Elgar anthems, and the Enigma Variations – with, at their heart, Dorabella herself, returning in spirit to the church where her father, the Reverend Alfred Penny, had first made the composer’s acquaintance.
But the links between the church, this concert, and Wolves continue to proliferate. Taking part in the performance will be the soprano Rita Cullis, much loved by Welsh National Opera audiences, and a respected tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire, who will be singing some Elgar songs.
Her surname might ring a few bells, as her uncle Stan Cullis was one of the most successful and respected managers in the Wolves’ history, a family connection which has drawn her back to Wolverhampton to help out in this Wolves-assisted event, whose aim is to raise funds towards the £270,000 appeal to rebuild St Peter’s historic “Father Willis” organ.
The present rector of St Peter’s, incidentally, the Rev David Wright, is also club chaplain to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Graham Hughes, indefatigable historian of the Wolves, proudly shows me another link between Elgar and the city – a Sunbeam bicycle of the type which the composer so enthusiastically used to cycle from Malvern to Wolverhampton. It was in fact manufactured in the then town, now city, in the charmingly-named Sunbeamland.
This was the machine upon which Elgar was cycling with Rosa Burley (headmistress of The Mount school in Malvern – to which the Elgars sent their daughter Carice) when they stopped for tea at Stretton Grandison, a hamlet on the old Worcester Road between Ledbury and Hereford.
Here they heard the news that the coronation of King Edward VII had been postponed at two days’ notice because of the future king’s appendicitis. Elgar was despondent, having devoted much time (and postponement of other projects) to the composition of a Coronation Ode. Apparently Elgar ordered an extra pint of cider to console himself before remounting his beloved “Mr Phoebus”.
All of these threads have been pulled together thanks to assiduous research backstage at Wolverhampton Wanderers, a Premier League club which is perhaps in the minority by wanting to “put something back into the community”, as Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, club vice-president and famously past skipper of the England women’s cricket team tells me.
“We raise about £100,000 every year for local charities,” she explains.
Rachael is formidable. Not only does she attend virtually every Wolves match, home and away, she also serves on the MCC and ECB. She, as a passionate musician, is also thrilled with the input of Wolverhampton Wanderers into this enterprising event.
“It’s good to see a little bit of culture at a Premiership football club.”
* St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, hosts An Evening with Elgar on Saturday, September 25 (7.30pm). Details on 01902 422642