Friday, April 09, 2004

Pilgrims' progress - to Malvern

Just back from an Easter trip to the frozen north...well, north of Watford. On the way up to the in-laws in Buxton, we took a detour to Malvern. I'd always wanted to go there to pay homage to a secret favourite: Sir Edward Elgar.

Being effectively English, by birth if not blood, I feel, as so many of us do, that maybe there's something a little shameful about actually liking music by certain English composers. But Elgar is glorious: paradoxical, personal, heart-rending. His public face can be deeply irritating - even he didn't like what became Land of Hope and Glory - but when he turns inward and shows you his heart, he is up there with the finest of his day. My personal favourites: the Piano Quintet, Serenade for Strings, Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto, Sospiri and even a symphony or two.

The Malvern Hills - a bizarre, dramatic hump in an otherwise flattish landscape - provided the backdrop to Elgar's inspiration. The views are stunning and the atmosphere remarkable. It feels like a place to stand back from life and look at everything from above and beyond: at once distanced, provided with perspective, yet also thrown back upon yourself and your own thoughts. You seem to gaze at life through both ends of the binoculars at the same time. Is this perhaps how Elgar saw it too?

He is buried in the graveyard of St Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern. We went there and found the grave adorned with vases of daffodils. Tom got out his violin and played Salut d'amour for him.

The Elgar Birthplace Museum, just west of Worcester and north of Malvern, is the cottage where the composer first saw the light of day. His daughter Carice bought it and turned it into a museum in (I think) the 1970s, with, on show, his writing table, plenty of photos, some letters and memorabilia and the prettiest of English country gardens full of daffodils and apple blossom. An additional Visitor Centre offers an excellent display telling the story of his life and containing some amazing manuscripts including the Second Symphony. More info via link on the left.

Additional insight for Faure fanatics like me: Elgar and Faure had the same British patron - Leo Frank Schuster - who once gave a party for the two of them together. They both sported fabulous moustachios and there are moments when they even sound alike.

A visit to Malvern and the Elgar Birthplace Museum is highly recommended for all Elgar fans, closet or otherwise. We don't make enough fuss of our few composers in this country!