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.”
What an interesting turn of phrase at the end there; on completing the composition of Gerontius two years later, Elgar was to append a quotation from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies: “This is the best of me... this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.”
Caractacus had some far-sighted touches, including the 7/4 time-signature for the hero’s lament after battle, and a flirting with the idea of using a quartet of saxophones in the orchestra, from which Elgar was disappointingly dissuaded.
The most memorable parts of the work are the ones closest to the composer’s roots, such as Scene III, “The Forest near the Severn”. And Elgar himself commented, “I made old Caractacus stop as if broken down and choke and say ‘woodlands’ again, as I’m so madly devoted to my woods”.
“This is what I hear all day”, he wrote, “...the trees are singing my music– or have I sung theirs?”. And there is much in the score prefiguring the English pastoralism of Falstaff, 15 years later.
Elsewhere Elgar expressed himself in less tender tones: “England for the English is all I say – hands off! there’s nothing apologetic about me.”
On completion of the work, Elgar sought the assistance of Sir Walter Parratt, Master of the Queen’s Musick, in securing Queen Victoria’s acceptance of the dedication, to which she graciously acceded.
Time moved on towards the premiere of Caractacus in Leeds on October 5. Early rehearsals for soloists and orchestra were held in London, where Elgar’s conducting technique was questioned in the Sunday Times: “The Malvern musician is one of those composers who understand what they want a great deal better than the art of getting it. His idea, apparently, is to worry his forces into a comprehension of his intentions. He stops at every third bar and calls for repeats until the band fairly loses its temper (without perhaps showing it), and there ensues a general feeling of impatience, and dissatisfaction.”
Actually, I don’t buy that London-based snobbery. Only three years later Elgar was dedicating his Cockaigne Overture to “my friends the members of British orchestras”, and he was soon to be appointed principal conductor of the newly-formed London Symphony Orchestra. Impatience and dissatisfaction? I don’t think so, particularly as Elgar had been a jobbing orchestral violinist for many years earlier.
The Leeds Mercury reported on the opening day of the Festival: “Mr Edward Elgar’s Caractacus promised to be the most important of the novelties brought forward during the week...
“It was a triumph, and everybody admitted it. Exclamations were to be heard all over the crowded hall after the conclusion of every scene... The chorus rose en masse and cheered Mr Elgar for all he was worth.”
Parry, Sullivan and no less a luminary than Gabriel Faure were in the audience at that premiere. Later there was an attempt to turn the work into an opera, which fortunately came to nothing.
It is a flawed piece, due largely to its ridiculous libretto (Elgar’s next major choral work would have the benefit of a matchless poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman – The Dream of Gerontius.
But it remained important to Elgar, right to the end of his life. Early in 1934, when Elgar was on his deathbed succumbing to cancer, Fred Gaisberg of His Master’s Voice records, arranged for a landline to be connected to Elgar’s Worcester bedroom from the Abbey Road studios in London, where Lawrance Collingwood was conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the Triumphal March and Woodland Interlude from Caractacus. Elgar was able to supervise, comment, and make suggestions. Perhaps this was the last music he ever heard. A month and a day later he was dead.
* Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Three Choirs Festival Chorus, soloists, and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Caractacus in Worcester Cathedral on Wednesday, August 10 (7.45pm). Details on 0845 652 1823